Nike, NBA Can't Clean Up LeBron's Mess This Time

And suddenly, Nike is gone. Poof, just like that. And the NBA? Where did it go? LeBron James just messed up, and that dead silence you heard came from his corporate social justice image partners.

James stepped out of his comfort zone with his tweet about a police officer who shot 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant of Columbus, Ohio. Yes, it was a white cop and yes, Bryant is a black girl, who was lunging with a knife at another black girl, or young woman. James tweeted a full-on photo of the officer with the words, “YOU’RE NEXT. #ACCOUNTABILITY.’’

Hello, Nike? Hello? Where are you? Did someone approve James’ latest?

No way. It appears that this was James taking the next step in his social justice Twitter activism. It appears that he stepped out from under Nike’s and the NBA’s safety net with that one. And that’s the problem with James. It’s why his social justice stances don’t quite work and always seem a little too polished and packaged.

He was criticized heavily Wednesday for his tweet, which served to put a target on the police officer and also left some doubt as to what he even meant. Did he mean that the officer is next in line for a murder conviction, like Derek Chauvin got for killing George Floyd? Or maybe James was saying that the officer is going to be the next one to get shot? Whatever he meant, it was a too-edgy call for justice for James’ carefully crafted image.

Who knows? James took the tweet down and tried to explain, but failed miserably. And even had a typo or missed word or something when he tried.

He also tweeted this: 

That wasn’t the time for a typo or missed word. It just meant more confusion. Is he saying his anger got the best of him when he tweeted YOU’RE NEXT, so he recklessly accused a cop of murder? I’m not really sure.

He needs to explain his explanation now. And Nike and the NBA need to do something here, say something. Maybe clear it up for him. Apparently this happened too late in the day for their marketing people to have a meeting to discuss what James meant. Surely they’ll come back with something today. But even that may not help.

At this point, it seems as if they abandoned him.

Look, James isn’t ready for this. I’m not questioning his intelligence or even his sincerity. It’s just that if he wants to be a true social justice leader along the lines of Muhammad Ali or Jim Brown, then it has to come off with more risk. Those guys took the chances that Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods were never willing to take when Nike was making them millions.

You can’t do this with a corporate partner. Social justice warrior or shoe salesman. It’s one or the other, not both. 

It’s true that James seems to have taken that chance this time, but it’s also clear that he wasn’t ready for it, that he hasn’t been prepared well for it. He has the passion and the smarts, but just not the savvy to go with this on his own.

James’ partnership with Nike just undermines his whole social justice campaign. Nike uses slave labor in China to make gear, and the NBA is tapping heavily into that market. 

He doesn’t have to champion every cause, but it’s disturbing when his social justice calls fall short of criticizing China, where the James/Nike/NBA partnership makes a lot of money.

Meanwhile, when James pushed big on Black Lives Matter, Nike excitedly jumped in. It was a great way to divert attention from its inhumane business practices with China.

That doesn’t mean James doesn’t mean it. But while he’s clearly doing this from his heart, it does suggest that he’s allowing himself to be used.

And now Nike and the NBA are going to have to get him out of this mess somehow today. He’s too important to their bottom line for them to punish or suspend him. And how would that look, anyway?

But they also can’t support this. They’re going to have to come up with an explanation, probably about understandable passion leading to a mistake.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t come with a slogan or hashtag.

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Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in and The Guardian. Couch penned articles and columns for Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.