An NBA Conundrum: The Incompatibility of Privilege, Status and Social Justice

When you’ve had the kind of basketball career LeBron James has enjoyed, that level of unprecedented success comes with an unspoken but very real preferred status.

Most of the time, it’s not that big a deal.

It usually manifests itself in a questionable call by officials going in his favor which gets the LeBron haters fired up, but doesn’t really amount to much in the grand scheme of things.

And then there was Sunday night’s skirmish between James and Detroit Pistons center Isaiah Stewart, an incident that left Stewart bloodied from a blow delivered by James.

The NBA’s punishment for James (one game) in the incident reeks of privilege being rewarded or in this instance, lightly punished.

We saw a similar blow in the 2015 NBA playoffs when J.R. Smith, a teammate of James at that time in Cleveland, landed a comparable blow to the head of then-Boston Celtic Jae Crowder.

Smith, whose blow didn’t cause any bloodshed, was suspended two games.

And with the Smith-Crowder incident having occurred during the playoffs, suspending Smith for multiple games spoke to the serious nature of the NBA in terms of policing violent incidents that involve one player hitting another in the face.

Which brings us back to LeBron and the slap-on-the-wrist treatment he received after delivering a blow to the head of Stewart that required five stitches to close up according to the Pistons.

While most may want to brush off what happened and think of it as not being that big a deal, here’s what you have to understand. The NBA and its players have been among the more outspoken when it comes to social justice issues that include, but aren’t limited to, more equitable treatment of others.

NBA players such as Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter has not held back in calling out political leaders as well as his fellow NBA players—James included—for not doing enough when it comes to speaking out against some of the societal ills of the world.

And in the midst of the racial reckoning in this country following the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, the NBA became one of the louder voices when it came to calls for social justice reform. The messaging ranged from player and coaches speeches to T-shirts worn during Zoom interviews, to strategic placing of ads and billboards designed to amplify the need for change; the need for more equitable treatment for all citizens. These are deeply personal and impactful issues, the kind that have to have consistency with messaging baked into a recipe for success.

Which is why the league’s treatment of James on this particular incident is troubling.

You will be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes James wanted to hit Stewart in the face and leave him a bloody mess. But that shouldn’t excuse him or any player for that matter, to not feel the full wrath of punishment that their transgression, should have warranted.

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That did not happen in this instance with James.

And that is what makes the NBA’s treatment of James while pushing others for more equitable treatment, somewhat more complicated. That moral ground that the league and its players stand on when it comes to these kind of issues, doesn’t quite have the same level of sturdiness when one of the game’s top players commits an on-the-floor transgression like James did and gets half as much punishment as another less-accomplished player (Smith) for a comparable misdeed.

It has a, “Do as I say, not as I do” feel about it.

Making matters worse, Stewart wound up with a two-game suspension. Stewart’s punishment was the right call. LeBron’s hit to his face certainly set everything that transpired into motion, but Stewart made a bad situation a lot worse by not leaving the court in a timely manner to, instead, run towards James repeatedly.

We often talk about sports from the lens of it being a microcosm of society as a whole.

What we have seen in this instance with James, is what NBA privilege looks like. And it ain’t pretty—at all.

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