LeBron shouldn’t have walked back his comments on Brittney Griner and America

OPINION: The NBA star didn't need to apologize or clarify himself after some people got upset about James pondering whether Griner would want to return to the U.S. after her ordeal in Russia.

LeBron James
LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers attends a game between the Lakers and the Phoenix Suns during the 2022 NBA Summer League at the Thomas & Mack Center on July 08, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

If LeBron James wants to be a voice for social justice, as is his right and apparently his desire, he should read up a little on James Baldwin, who had the ideal comeback for white folks who questioned Black folks’ patriotism. The literary genius perfectly captured the thin line we straddle between outward affection and outright rejection.

“I love America more than any other country in the world,” Baldwin wrote in Notes of a Native Son, “and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

There’s no need for clarification when we castigate America. Actually, finding fault with this country is a bipartisan sport: our side trying to move it forward, the other trying to put ’er in reverse. 

But the latter group is enraged whenever we entertain the thought that elsewhere might be better. James caught that red-hot heat for suggesting America ain’t all that. Such ingratitude is particularly blasphemous to fake patriots because James is a billionaire Black. He had the nerve to question if WNBA star Brittney Griner would return here upon being released from Russia.  

“How can she feel like America has her back?” James said in a recent trailer for the latest episode of his YouTube show, The Shop: Uninterrupted. “I would be feeling like, ‘Do I even want to go back to America?”

The outrage was equal parts ridiculous and predictable. 

Supposedly we aren’t allowed to openly ponder life abroad as Baldwin enjoyed for his last 40 years, especially not if we’re doing better than most. Just forget that some of our most influential artists and activists besides Baldwin—including Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Audre Lorde and Frederick Douglass—at some point moved overseas, seeking refuge from old-fashioned American racism.

James was commenting on the U.S. government’s failure thus far to secure Griner’s release. She was arrested in Moscow in February (and pleaded guilty last week) for allegedly possessing hashish oil in her luggage. Her detainment has galvanized the sports world, with complaints about the seemingly lackluster efforts to bring her home. 

Whether Griner would prefer flying to Paris instead of Phoenix isn’t the real issue here. 

It’s James’ implied criticism of these United States, which he sadly felt the need to clarify Tuesday night.

“My comments on ‘The Shop’ regarding Brittney Griner wasn’t knocking our beautiful country,” he tweeted. “I was simply saying how she’s probably feeling emotionally along with so many other emotions, thoughts, etc. inside that cage she’s been in for over 100+ days!”

Can we stop to appreciate the absurdity of an apology for “knocking” our beautiful country? That’s the only reason we’ve progressed from plantations to the White House. 

I doubt James would ponder which country to head toward upon his release from a Russian prison. At worse, he’d ask, “Which mansion?” But whatever his plane’s destination, every would-be social justice warrior must continue to highlight inconvenient truths that amount to criticism.

When you wear an ‘I can’t breathe’ T-shirt like James wore after George Floyd’s murder, it’s a knock against racist policing in our beautiful country. When you create multiple I PROMISE entities to provide education, housing and health care to the underserved, it’s a knock against racist policies in our beautiful country. When you call out Donald Trump for who he is and what he’s unleashed, it’s a knock against racist presidents in our beautiful country. 

Athletes such as James, former NFL player Michael Bennett and WNBA stars Natasha Cloud and Breanna Stewart have been outspoken critics of social injustice. Shining light on Griner’s case is a no-brainer for folks with their platforms. But they also must realize that Griner’s visibility works both ways as the administration works on her behalf.

James noted that Griner had been held for over 100 days. He might be unaware that another American, Paul Whelan, has been held in Russia since December 2018 on charges that the U.S. government says are false. Griner has much more value as an international celebrity, which gives Russia added leverage in negotiations and might explain the “delay.” 

Just don’t tell Whelan’s family that Griner’s release is taking too long.

In any case, it makes no sense for trolls like Enes Kanter Freedom to criticize James for “taking your freedom for granted.” He even reached for one of the establishment’s oldest non-remedies: “You are free to leave buddy.”

When those types snarl “love it or leave it” after shortcomings are pointed out, don’t apologize and don’t clarify. Just throw it right back in their face. 

If THEY don’t love our struggle for justice, equity and inclusion, THEY should leave. Each of us reserves the right to do likewise. But whether we stay or go, we’ll do like James and Baldwin.

And continue to knock the hell out of America as necessary.

Deron Snyder thegrio.com

Deron Snyder, from Brooklyn, is an award-winning columnist who lives near D.C. and pledged Alpha at HU-You Know! He’s reaching high, lying low, moving on, pushing off, keeping up, and throwing down. Got it? Get more at blackdoorventures.com/deron

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