Ian Herbert: Footballers should follow example of LeBron James and make themselves heard

Football language is sanitised by sponsors, press officers and the Uefa thought police

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Wearing a T-shirt to convey a message carries risks. Just ask those building Liverpool Football Club into the modern, inclusive business that it now is how they felt about the night Kenny Dalglish’s players wore the image of Luis Suarez before their match at Wigan Athletic in 2011. It was an excruciating, misguided symbol of “total support” after the eight-game ban imposed on their player for racially abusing Patrice Evra. It is not a route that club would venture down again.

But some messages are worth wearing and given the place that football has ascribed itself in the world order – somewhere above the United Nations;  a land where every word uttered is  ascribed almighty significance – we know that millions will hear when its competitors speak.

Except, they do not speak. The language of football is sanitised by sponsors, press officers, the battery of TV “flash interviews” and the Uefa thought police to such an extent that your heart skipped a beat last week to see the vest that LeBron James wore before he led his Cleveland Cavaliers against the Brooklyn Nets, in front of an audience that included British royalty in New York. Those present attest to the fact that the occasion was cruising through into its glossy, pre-planned choreography when 29-year-old James stepped out wearing something radically different to the standard-issue National Basketball Association warm-up kit. A T-shirt bearing three words in block letters, which screamed across a continent: “I can’t breathe.”

Those were the last words of Eric Garner, a harmless, unarmed, middle-aged black man guilty of nothing more than selling loose untaxed cigarettes in the New York borough of Staten Island, who was choked to death by a policeman while five more officers watched – an event filmed by a bystander with a mobile phone. James, who is African-American, threw in his lot with those thousands from the streets who had made the victim’s words a symbol of their protest, after a grand jury in the city decided that the officer concerned would not be charged. It was substantial commercial risk for an individual who rakes in tens of millions of dollars in commercial income each year and appears in advertisements for McDonald’s and Samsung.

James – “King James” to his followers – was unmoved by the potentially critical response. We are accustomed to controversies involving footballers and social media being of a most dismal kind – gifting a misogynistic website free publicity in the case of Mario Balotelli, who decided to re-tweet a cartoon image with anti-Semitic content. But James said that he saw the T-shirt as a way to leverage “the power of social media” for an important cause. “It was a message to the family that I’m sorry for the loss,” he declared. “That’s what it’s about.”

It worked. Other stars followed. The New York Times published a 1,300-word feature simply detailing the work that had been needed to get James’ extra-large T-shirt made in time. We should not have been surprised. It is only three weeks since James showed Balotelli the way to re-tweet a cartoon image. His own choice depicted Michael Brown, the black teenager shot dead in murky circumstances in Ferguson, Missouri, and Trayvon Martin, shot dead by a community-watch volunteer in Florida. “As a society, how do we do better and stop things like this happening time after time. I’m so sorry to these families,” James observed. As the Financial Times’ Gary Silverman has put it: “The king’s touch proved just as sure as it has been on court.”

There was a hint that British footballers also have something to say when Rio Ferdinand went on BBC Radio 5 Live a few years back, to tell Victoria Derbyshire about how knife crime had claimed the life of Rio McFarlane, the teenage brother of one of his closest friends. Ferdinand was eloquent, impassioned, pleading to be heard. He also seems for all the world like a spokesman for the racial bias implicit in a sport where black managers barely exist and neither do black administrators or chief executives.


It is not just the confines of the sport which have restricted him. Ferdinand championed the boycott of the Kick It Out anti-discrimination group’s T-shirt campaign two years ago over what he claimed was the organisation’s failure to deal with the latent racism. Though he never offered an explanation of how the modestly funded group had been off-message or provided strategy of his own. One of the most disappointing sections of Ferdinand’s new autobiography #2sides, is his subsequent attack on Kick It Out, who do good work. He castigated the organisation’s representative at the John Terry race case for failing to wear a T-shirt to display that he was in the camp of his brother Anton, whom Terry racially abused. As if the choice of clothes at a court case really made the slightest difference,

But elite sport – and elite football in particular – have their own distasteful way of quashing the kind of social consciousness we have seen from James. Football has been silencing its competitors ever since Robbie Fowler found himself at the centre of controversy in 1997 for wearing a  T-shirt which used the Calvin Klein logo to project a message for the striking Liverpool dockers. Uefa fined Fowler SFr2,000 (£1,300), though prefaced their press release revealing the fact with the words “It may seem strange and even unfair…”

That was over 17 years ago and no one seems so embarrassed any more. Uefa fines are a matter of routine, while Moeen Ali was censured by the International Cricket Council for having the temerity to wear so much as a wristband during the India Tests last summer, stating “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine.” A social conscience seems to be limited these days to such acts as  Theo Walcott and Calum Chambers rattling buckets for their own club’s charities last weekend. Multi-millionaire footballers, asking for cash, while campaigners leaflet the streets outside  the Emirates with the living-wage leaflets they have been distributing for weeks. Strange world.

The glossy choreography was soon restored when James had made his point in New York. He tweeted an image of himself with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. “This very moment will be forever remembered and put up in my house. It’s all good and all smiles on this side.”

The “I can’t breathe T-shirt” became a part of the gloss: a fashion item, now on sale online. Sport has a well-known capacity to shift shirts. Why should it not also exercise its right to change perceptions? Who knows – it might even make things better.