LeBron James: Champion on and off court

Jude Papillion, Sports Editor

We all know about what LeBron James has done through his career so far on the court: a four-time MVP award winner, four-time NBA champion, four-time Finals MVP, four-time AP athlete of the year, ten NBA finals appearances, 16-time All-NBA, 17-time NBA All-Star, two time Olympic gold medalist — the list goes on and on. However, the impact James has had on the world outside of the arena could be even more impressive than all of his basketball accolades. 

Cecilia Hammond

Throughout his NBA career, James has been a champion off the basketball court. James’ work in the community began in 2004 when he founded the LeBron James Family Foundation shortly after he was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The foundation started small, sponsoring one-and-done events, such as bike-a-thons, benefitting James’ hometown of Akron, Ohio, for the first years of its existence. James increased the foundation’s work in 2011 when he created the I PROMISE program in 2011, launched with the goal of providing a new Akron Public School third grade class each year with the resources, incentives and academic and emotional support that both students and parents need to stay in school.

In 2015, James announced the I PROMISE scholarship, which gave all of the students in his I PROMISE program a guaranteed free, four-year scholarship to the University of Akron. The foundation said that up to 2,300 students could receive scholarships. The current tuition for in-state students at the university is $11,880 per year — or $47,520 per person for four years —  meaning that James and his foundation could provide over $109 million in college scholarships. 

James continued his support of his I PROMISE students when he announced the I PROMISE Institute on the campus of the University of Akron, designed to help his students become acclimated to college life and be provided with resources. 

On July 30, 2018, James and the Lebron James Family Foundation in partnership with Akron Public Schools opened the I PROMISE School, with its inaugural class of 240 third and fourth grade students. By 2022, the I PROMISE School will have about 1,000 students in first through eighth grade. 

Designed for specifically at-risk children, the I PROMISE School operates differently than most schools. Its school year runs from July through May to prevent the slide that educators say impacts many kids over the summer, and the school offers several STEM-based camps during the summer break. School days begin at 9 a.m. when students eat breakfast with their teachers every day before heading to class. Students attending the I PROMISE School under-perform in reading, math and other academic areas and are being taught a STEM-based curriculum with a hands-on approach to learning. Every day, students are offered time for social-emotional learning and attend a supportive circle after lunch.

There are no tuition costs at the I PROMISE School and all students receive free uniforms and are fed breakfast, lunch and a snack daily. All students also received a complimentary bicycle and helmet, and those who live over two miles away from the I PROMISE School’s campus are offered free daily school bus transportation. The school also has a family resource center, which offers some families necessities for day-to-day survival including a food pantry stocked by the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank and General Educational Development classes for students’ parents.

The I PROMISE School will graduate its first class in the spring of 2021, and while James’ passed up attending college to enter the 2003 NBA Draft, he will now have the opportunity to send an entire high school class to college every year. James considers the opening of the I PROMISE School to be the most important thing he has done as a professional. 

In 2020, James’ foundation launched the I PROMISE Village, located half a mile away from the I PROMISE School, offering rent-free transitional housing for any of the school’s families experiencing homelessness, domestic violence or other unforeseen circumstances. The facility can hold up to 16 families, and two of its units are reserved for emergencies such as a house fire or robbery.

James’ work through his foundation is only half of what makes him a champion off the court. Over the past 10 years, James has become not only one of the biggest social activists in sports, one of the biggest advocates for social justice in general — even becoming enemies with former President Donald Trump.

Following the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, James tweeted a photo of himself and his Miami Heat teammates standing together, wearing hoodies with their heads bowed and faces hidden — Martin was shot to death wearing a hoodie. The tweet included the hashtags #WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice. With James’ tweet, the Miami Heat became a prominent group of Black athletes to protest Martin’s killing — and without speaking a word, their message was clear. Unlike other generational athletes such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, James was not scared to use his voice as an activist in the height of his career, ignoring potential polarization among his own fans and sponsors and instead drawing inspiration from earlier athletes who fought for social justice in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Muhammad Ali

On Dec. 8, 2014, following the death of Eric Garner and a New York grand jury’s decision to not convict the police officer involved in Garner’s death, James and his Cleveland Cavaliers teammates sported shirts with the slogan “I CAN’T BREATHE” while warming up for a matchup against the Brooklyn Nets. Garner was heard telling police officers he couldn’t breathe while he was held in a chokehold.

In September 2017, Trump ridiculed NFL players for kneeling during the National Anthem at a rally in Alabama, telling the crowd “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say: ‘Get that son of a b—  off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’’ Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry responded by saying he would not go to the White House to celebrate the Warriors’ 2017 championship, leading to Trump publicly rescinding Curry’s invitation on Twitter. James then stepped in, sticking up for Curry by calling Trump a “bum” on Twitter “because he’s now using sports as the platform to try to divide us, and we all know how much sports brings us together, how much passion it has, how much we love and care, the friendships and everything that it creates.”

In February 2018, Fox News host Laura Ingraham went on a two-minute tirade, responding to comments made by James and Kevin Durant about Trump and leaving many believing she included racist undertones in her message. The conservative television host mocked James for petitioning the NBA to leave high school a year early, called their comments “barely intelligible,” before telling the two to “shut up and dribble.” James responded to Ingraham on Instagram, posting a photo of neon lights reading “I Am More Than An Athlete,” along with #wewillnotshutupanddribble.

Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in May 2020, James decided that he needed “to get out and do a little bit more,” in the midst of his first championship run with the Los Angeles Lakers. James, in partnership with other athletes including Alvin Kamara and Draymond Green, created an organization called More Than a Vote, with the goal of getting as many Black people as possible to register for and vote in the 2020 presidential election. The organization also looks to expose voter suppression tactics by educating the community. More Than a Vote registered over 40,000 volunteers as poll workers and pushed NBA arenas to open as polling centers. More Than a Vote is James’ biggest step into politics and political activism thus far, previously only speaking out on social media and speaking at one of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign rallies in 2016. James also promised to further his use of his social media platforms — with over 136 million combined followers on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook — to speak out against social injustice. 

Though James, now 36, will not be with us forever as a basketball player, the work James has done off the court in the past and the work he will undoubtedly continue to do long after he steps off the floor for the final time will live on forever.

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