Weekend updates

Two terrific articles from ESPN the Magazine:

1)excellent piece by Mina Kimes, on college athletic departments’ restricting athletes’ use of twitter. Kimes says the practice might well be unconstitutional. She also cuts through the usual hogwash used to defend such practices.

For instance:

Several coaches have argued that they’re protecting their players from themselves, as though other college students aren’t equally susceptible to harming their career prospects with stupid tweets. The difference, of course, is that normal students don’t have the power to dent the reputations of their schools — or the coffers of their athletic programs.

Consistent with the logical foundation of sand on which most college athletics policies are built, its defenders can’t deploy arguments that might actually make sense in this case because doing so would require acknowledging the obvious – that college athletes are employees:

If colleges are ever forced to defend these policies in court — there have been no significant cases yet — they’ll probably argue that student-athletes are different from their peers. Players already submit to extra oversight, like curfews and practice schedules. But unlike social media bans, those rules don’t invalidate their constitutional rights. Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the nonprofit Student Press Law Center, says employers can sometimes defend limits on speech by arguing that their workers are representing the organization — but it’s unlikely that universities, so terrified of categorizing student-athletes as employees, would use that defense. “Colleges have made that bed, and now they’re going to have to lie in it,” he says.

One more point, not in Kimes’ piece: though you’d never know it to hear NCAA defenders yack on and on about this, but other students on college campuses receive full, free rides and, in some ways, have even better financial deals than their athlete peers. But they are not subject to anything like the same restrictions that athletic departments feel is their right to impose.

In other words, the argument that the full scholarship grants athletic departments total control of player’s lives is BS. Schools think of athletes differently than they do every other student on campus, regardless of scholarship status.

2) also for the Mag, Howard Bryant has an excellent piece about LeBron, and the ways in which his legacy has already far surpassed that of King Michael:

In Akron, Ohio, hometown of LeBron James, the black poverty rate is 28 percent, 12 points higher than the state average. To James, the numbers are not just a topic, ammunition for winning an argument, but statistical recognition of his life before fame. Days after the anniversary protests marking Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, James partnered with the University of Akron and countered the numbers with other numbers, pledging $41 million to send as many as 2,000 at-risk Akron kids to college.

It was a massive initiative, a reminder that, in addition to protest and pressure, the rhetoric of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps means nothing without boots. It was also something else: proof that James is the signature socially conscious athlete of his time. By this measure he need not aspire to be Michael Jordan. He’s already run right past him.

Bryant catalogs some of the myriad ways in which LeBron has taken clear social stands, including ones unlikely to be especially popular with the NBA’s more affluent white customer fan base, including in his outspoken statements and actions following the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

Bryant explains the different social and political contexts in which MJ and LBJ grew up. But as he notes, that doesn’t adequately explain the very different approaches these two world megastars have taken to events beyond the hardwood:

The similarities between James and Jordan end when their shared No. 23 jersey rests on a hanger, for Jordan has never been known for a single courageous social act. While James attempts to bridge the powerless to a future, Jordan sued a defunct supermarket chain and won $8.9 million over an advertisement that reportedly yielded all of $4. (Jordan said he planned to donate the money to charity.)

James has accepted a challenge of his times so foreign to the 1980s, making him an heir not to Jordan but to the civil rights movement, to Jim Brown and Bill Russell, to the idea of the athlete as activist. Every day of his career has existed under the shadow of Jordan, but as citizen, LeBron does not look up to Michael. It should be the other way around.

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