The President, the Pope, and…the Player?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve looked at how unique personal brands have transcended the role of traditional brands like the President of the United State or the pope. In today’s ramble, I’d like to look at how a particular athlete is doing the same for the role of athlete.

As I’ve written many times, the majority of people around the world look to leaders in the private sector rather than the government for support. In a study conducted by Y&R’s proprietary research engine, BAV, 82% of adults around the globe perceive a leadership crisis in the world, while 61% claim they trust private companies more than government to take care of their needs. While the Mark Zuckerbergs, Bill Gateses and Elon Musks rank highest as visionary figures, an unexpected contender has emerged as their equal in the arena of social responsibility: LeBron James.

In late July, LeBron announced a coordinated effort between his non-profit, the LeBron James Family Foundation, and the Akron (Ohio) Public Schools to launch a public elementary school in his struggling hometown of Akron. Among other things, LeBron’s ‘I Promise’ school’s unique features include, “a long school day (eight hours); a ‘support circle’ for students after lunch; and GED courses and job placement for parents.” Every student will also receive two free meals per day, have access to a fitness trainer, will be given a bicycle, and, perhaps most importantly, graduates of the program will receive a full scholarship, funded by LeBron, to the University of Akron.

Although LeBron is not the only celebrity to commit his capital to innovative youth educational efforts (Sean Combs established a charter school for historically disadvantaged students in Harlem and Elon Musk founded a school for his sons that emphasizes tech and entrepreneurship), he is uniquely situated among celebrity brands to pack a powerful punch. Interestingly, LeBron’s school remains different from others founded by celebrity innovators, as his school seems to prioritize the building of strong foundations, emphasizing hard work, family, and promise of a future. No headline-grabbing courses, experimental curriculums or flame throwers here.

Using BAV metrics to measure LeBron’s brand perception among American adults, we found that he is ranked in the top 10% of brands on social responsibility, just slightly behind philanthropic player Elon Musk—whose generosity might have reached its limits. LeBron’s high measurement significantly outperforms the brand with whom he is most closely associated—the NBA—which is ranked at only 40% on social responsibility. To offer additional context, LeBron’s social responsibility ranking is as high as one of the most purpose-driven brands in the world, REI.

Sure, there is nothing new about athletes using their celebrity to call attention to issues both social and political (see: Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick). But while political activism is vital in catalyzing change, LeBron is doing something different. His efforts are preemptive, not just reactionary. He is making a change from the ground up. And his contribution doesn’t stop at his ‘I Promise’ school.

Inspired by criticism directed at politically outspoken basketball players, LeBron has teamed up with Showtime to produce a three-part series adopting its title from Laura Ingram’s now infamous directive to players: “Shut Up and Dribble.” CEO of Showtime Networks Inc., David Nevins, said, “If being a star athlete is inherently a political experience, ‘Shut Up and Dribble’ tells that complex and dramatic story from the past to the present and from the inside out.” He adds, “LeBron James is one of many competitors whose place in the spotlight has led not to silence but perspective, and he, Maverick Carter and Gotham Chopra have given us an important, insightful docuseries that should bring their fans and fellow citizens to a higher level of discourse, rather than the dismissal satirized in the title.” According to Chopra, the series is “really an exploration of how basketball is truly America’s game and the NBA has been a vessel for black athletes to claim pieces of the American Dream.”

LeBron is not just putting his money where his mouth is, nor is he preaching empty words from a remote pulpit. He is using his personal capital and media prowess to change the lives of the systematically disadvantaged and educate the world on the new role of athletes today: inspirational, philanthropic, political, complex.

Listen:

Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary – Martin Luther King Jr.

While trust in government continues to decline and people look elsewhere for support, it is anybody’s guess from where the next great political disruption may come. Who knows, it could just be a player on your favorite sports team…

What do you think?

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