“The 91st Minute” is a column by Sam Reno about professional soccer.
When you hear the infamous “stick to sports” line, you expect it to come from a Fox News show host or some troll in a comment section on social media. However, this past week, one of the most popular footballers on the planet, Zlatan Ibrahimovic decided to attach his name to the sentiment.
The AC Milan forward made comments regarding Lebron James’s frequent and public activism in an interview with Discovery+. He criticized LeBron, and all other notable athletes, who actively use their platform to advocate for change.
“I like [James] a lot,” Ibrahimovic said. “He’s phenomenal, what he’s doing, but I don’t like when people with a status speak about politics. Do what you’re good at doing.
“I play football because I’m the best at playing football. I’m no politician. If I’d been a politician, I would be doing politics.
“This is the first mistake famous people do when they become famous: for me it is better to avoid certain topics and do what you’re good doing, otherwise you risk doing something wrongly.”
Following the Lakers’ victory over the Trail Blazers on Friday, LeBron was asked about Zlatan’s criticism of his activism.
“I will never shut up about things that are wrong,” James said. “I preach about my people and I preach about equality, social justice, racism, voter suppression - things that go on in our community.
“I know what’s still going on because I have a group of 300-plus kids at my school that are going through the same thing and they need a voice.
“I’m their voice and I use my platform to continue to shed light on everything that might be going on, not only in my community but in this country and around the world.”
There is so much wrong with what Zlatan said, but let’s begin with the hypocrisy of his comments. Just three years ago, in 2018, he claimed he was not receiving fair treatment and coverage from the Swedish media. In the interview, he said that since he does not have a traditional Swedish surname, the unfair coverage was a result of “undercover racism.”
Zlatan had no issue speaking out against injustice when it affected him, but when others speak out on what they see and experience, they must be out of line. We have seen this time and time again when individuals attack athletes for using their platform for activism. It is often deemed fine for athletes to speak, so long as those who receive it agree with the player’s message. Take Laura Ingraham of Fox News as an example.
She famously told Lebron to “shut up and dribble” following some of his criticisms of Donald Trump in 2018, because he was an athlete getting paid millions “to bounce a ball.” However, when New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees called those who chose to kneel during the national anthem “disrespectful,” Ingraham defended Brees, saying that “he is allowed to have an opinion.”
Of course Zlatan is no idiot, for he most certainly recognizes his own hypocrisy on the matter. He equally knows, however, that these comments pander to a large number of sports fans who agree with this out-of-touch sentiment that athletes must be complacent in society.
Professional athletes have some of the largest platforms in the world and have an opportunity to use it to speak on behalf of and serve so many who are in need, and they should be celebrated for doing so, not condemned.
In Zlatan’s own sport, stars like Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Chelsea’s Reece James run a massive campaign in England to provide meals for children in need, which they are appropriately praised for doing. However, they are also on the receiving end of disgusting and racist messages such as this:
Of course, when they want to turn and use their platform to speak out against these issues, there is no shortage of critics. Fans and some media personalities will tell James, Rashford and dozens more like them to not be so “soft,” to “stick to football” and “stay out of politics.” Once again, using the platform is fine, as long as it does not make anyone uncomfortable.
Lastly, it should not be ignored how Zlatan, and many others like him, constantly throw around the buzzword “politics”. Everytime they do not like an athlete’s activism, they repeat some version of that “stay out of politics line,” always careful to include that word because it undermines their message and attempts to separate the athlete from the issue.
Of course, to any person capable of empathy and compassion, these are not political issues. These problems are issues of human rights, safety, and life.
Saying that a twelve year old boy should not be shot for holding a toy gun is not a political statement. Saying a man should not be shot while simply jogging is not a political statement. Saying a police officer should not kneel on the neck of another human being for eight minutes is not a political statement. We are talking about the fate of people’s lives here, something LeBron, and every other athlete Zlatan takes issue with, realize.
“The 91st Minute” runs every Wednesday.