Jonathan Zimmerman: On Darfur, LeBron James drops the ball

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University.]

Athletic. Amazing. Powerful. Phenomenal.

America's airwaves are jammed with superlatives to describe basketball star LeBron James, who began his first semifinal playoff series this week. No matter how Mr. James's Cleveland Cavaliers fare in their matchup against the Detroit Pistons, however, I've got my own description for his off-court decisions.


James's teammate Ira Newble recently helped draft an open letter to the Chinese government, condemning its role in the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Everybody on the Cavaliers signed the letter except for James and Damon Jones. James said he didn't have enough information about the issue to take a stand. Mr. Jones wouldn't comment.

We can choose to take them at their word, of course – or we can follow the money. Jones has an endorsement contract with an up-and-coming Chinese shoe and apparel company. James has a $90 million deal with Nike, which has huge business interests in China.

And China has enormous interests in Sudan, where at least 200,000 people have been killed – and 2.5 million displaced – since 2003. Desperate to locate new energy sources, the Chinese invest a billion dollars a year in Sudan and purchase two-thirds of its oil. Proceeds from these sales help fund the Arab militia known as the janjaweed, which continues to murder, rape, and dismember non-Arabs in Sudan's western region of Darfur.

As Beijing prepares to host the 2008 Olympic Games, however, the Chinese have shown signs of softening their stance. Criticized by other Hollywood celebrities for serving as an artistic adviser to the Olympics, film director Steven Spielberg sent a letter in April urging China to help end"human suffering" in Sudan. Shortly thereafter, China dispatched an envoy to encourage the Sudanese government to accept a United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur.

To be sure, China continues to block UN Security Council sanctions against Sudan. But the Spielberg episode suggests that the Chinese might be susceptible to more international pressure, especially if it threatens to mar their Olympic lovefest (slogan:"One World One Dream") in Beijing.

Mr. Newble knows all of that, of course, which is why his own letter explicitly links Darfur to the Olympics."China cannot be a legitimate host to the [Olympics] ... while it remains complicit in the terrible suffering and destruction that continues to this day," Newble wrote....

Here James echoes the dominant hoopster of his youth, Michael Jordan, who has a record of putting profits over principles. Mr. Jordan refused to endorse African-American Democrat Harvey Gantt in his bid to unseat Republican (and ex-segregationist) Jesse Helms in a racially tinged 1990 Senate race in Jordan's home state of North Carolina."Republicans buy sneakers, too," he explained.

The Helms-Gantt election was, of course, a political contest. By comparison, the Darfur situation is an unconscionable crime against humanity. Politically speaking, it's a slam dunk. Every credible human rights organization has underscored the complicity of Sudan's government in the Darfur genocide; and even the Chinese acknowledge their support for this same government. As the 2008 Olympics get closer, the only question is what we're going to do about it.

Here you might object that the Olympics should be about sports, not politics. That's exactly what the Chinese have been saying, of course: just last week, China's foreign minister denounced Western activists for"trying to politicize the Olympic Games."

But the Games have always been political. They were political in 1936, when Adolf Hitler used the Berlin Olympics to burnish the Third Reich's international image; in 1968, when two African-American champions raised the black power salute as they received their medals; and in 1972, when terrorists abducted and killed 11 Israeli athletes.

The Games were political in 1976, when Taiwan walked out of the Olympics in Montreal to protest Canada's recognition of the People's Republic of China; in 1980, when the United States and dozens of other nations (including China!) boycotted the Moscow Olympics in denunciation of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and in 1984, when the Soviets returned the favor by refusing to compete in Los Angeles.

So the 2008 Olympics in Beijing will be political, too....

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More Comments:

Vernon Clayson - 5/28/2007

Mr. Besch, your argument is specious, LaBron James went to high school, his basketball playing meant little to the school financially. They received publicity but high schools don't live on that like, for example, Notre Dame, a rather small school which lives high off sports publicity. The author might as well have said that Paris Hilton hasn't said anything about Darfur. She is equally young, ill-educated and unsophisticated, neither can be described as even dilettantes. I'm half-ashamed that I bothered to respond to the article.

Randll Reese Besch - 5/26/2007

Perhapse the creation and sustaining of schools that are more interested in the big bucks of sports over education.One wonders of LeBron James'education level when he 'graduated' and who do we blame?
Probably many up and down the systems from coaches,teachers to parents and sports agents.We know what is considered important by how much money is spent, in lavish quantities.
Narrow of focus produces a narrow point of view.

Vernon Clayson - 5/25/2007

LeBron James is 21 with no education beyond high school and we don't even know that he finished that. His opinion is of little value, for all we know he may not know where Darfur is or why it's in the news. Why should he care, because he's black? Aren't you racial profiling a little, Professor Zimmerman? Better you should ask Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, they play that race card, LeBron James plays basketball. Why fault him for something that the world is largely ignoring and always has? Darfur is not a market, it has no industry, it is of little consequence, now or ever, perhaps you should see what Sally Struthers thinks of the situation there. In her quaky voice she could say a dollar a day would feed a family - if only there was some way to get that dollar past the rogues who run the place.