LeBron vs. Zlatan: Why the age of the apolitical superstar is gone forever

By | March 3, 2021

The words were Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s own, but the message was a familiar one.

Stick to sports; shut up and dribble. That was the deeper meaning behind the message Ibrahimovic sent when he took aim at NBA star LeBron James in a recent interview aired last week.

“[LeBron] is phenomenal at what he’s doing, but I don’t like it when people have some kind of status, they go and do politics at the same time,” Ibrahimovic told Discovery+ in Sweden. “Do what you’re good at. Do the category you do. I play football because I’m the best at playing football.

MORE: LeBron lists favorite soccer players, including ‘crazy’ Zlatan

“I don’t do politics. If I would be a politician, I would do politics. That is the first mistake people make when they become famous and they reach a certain status. Stay out of it. Just do what you do best because it doesn’t look good.”

Despite James having responded, Ibrahimovic doubled down Tuesday, saying: “Racism and politics are two different things. We athletes unite the world, politics divides the world.”

For James, it is a familiar sentiment. It has been the message sent at him for years, most famously by television presenter Laura Ingraham, the originator of that now-infamous “shut up and dribble” quip.

For years, James has been one of sport’s most outspoken athletes, and he has become one of sport’s most frequent targets because of it.

James, in many ways, represents the newest generation of athlete. He is obviously a sports star first, but his push into other avenues, such as his minority ownership of Liverpool, make him quite the businessman.

In the NBA, he has ushered in a new era of player entitlement, with the league’s top stars now holding more power over their own futures than ever before. And, away from the court, he has taken on a prominent role in social activism, following in the footsteps of titans like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in using his platform to inspire societal change.

There is now a new generation: the athlete that cares. It is a massive change from yesteryear when outspoken sports stars were few and far between; a minority who only sporadically made headlines, such as during the 1968 Olympics men’s 200-meter medal ceremony.

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But as the world has changed around them, activism in sport has not become the exception, but rather the norm.

Consider Naomi Osaka, now a four-time tennis Grand Slam tournament winner but deeply involved in social activism. Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest in the NFL continues to resonate around the world. 

Look at Megan Rapinoe and the U.S. women’s national team, who have spent years fighting for gender equality and equal pay. The USWNT’s top stars have all had different approaches in that fight, with Rapinoe being far and away the most outspoken, but their unification for that common goal has blended sport and politics unlike any other team that came before them.

Or look to MLS and the Black Players for Change organization that formed in the wake of the protests following the death of George Floyd. The organization, which features over 170 players, coaches and staff across MLS, is actively working with the league to promote diversity while fighting back at the systems that have prevented Black people from equal opportunities in American soccer.

You could even look to U.S. Soccer as a whole, as this past weekend’s annual general meeting was overshadowed by controversy. Speaking in favor of reinstating the federation’s national anthem policy, Seth Jahn, a member of the U.S. seven-a-side Paralympic team, made his argument by downplaying the effects of slavery. 

“I keep hearing how our country was founded on the backs of slaves, even though approximately only 8 percent of the entire population even owned slaves,” said Jahn, who has since been removed by the federation’s athletes’ council. 

“Every race in the history of mankind has been enslaved by another demographic at some point in time. Blacks have been enslaved. Hispanics have been enslaved. Asians, most recently in our country in the freaking 20th century, have been enslaved. Natives have been enslaved. Whites have been enslaved. Shoot, I lived in Africa for 2 1/2 years where I could purchase people, slaves, between the price of $300 and $800 per person, per head depending on their age, health and physicality.

“Where were the social justice warriors and the news journalists there to bring their ruminations to these real atrocities? And yet in all of history, only one country has fought to abolish slavery, the United States of America, where nearly 400,000 men died to fight for the abolishment of slavery underneath the same stars and bars that our athletes take a knee for. Their sacrifice is tainted with every knee that touches the ground.”


These sorts of debates, discussions and controversies are not just bound to the United States, though. Marcus Rashford is perhaps football’s most famous example, with the Manchester United star’s advocacy for children earning him the highest levels of recognition in England.

Raheem Sterling is one of a number of Premier League stars battling racism while Juan Mata co-founded Common Goal, an organization that encourages footballers to donate 1 percent of their wages to aid the United Nations’ Global Goals to end extreme poverty by 2030.

And let us not forget Ibrahimovic himself, who publicized the United Nations’ World Food Programme back in 2015 and who used his own platform to speak out about racism in Sweden back in 2018.

“What does the Swedish media do? They defend me or do they jump on and attack me? They still attack me, because they cannot accept that I am Ibrahimovic,” he told Canal+.

“If another player would do same mistake I do, they would defend him. But when it comes to me, they don’t defend me.

“This is about racism. This is about racism. I don’t say there is racism but I say there is undercover racism.

“This exists, I am 100 percent sure. Because I am not Andersson or Svensson. If I would be that, trust me, they would defend me even if I would rob a bank. They would defend me, I tell you.”

Ibrahimovic, having spent two seasons in the U.S. with the LA Galaxy, will be more than familiar with James’ own story, just like James was with his. The two are both massive figures, both in the U.S. and abroad, and their recent war of words made mainstream news because of it.

The pair are legitimate sporting icons, and both have much more in common than many, including perhaps themselves, would realize.

Ibrahimovic, like James, has used his platform to speak about issues he sees in society. And Ibrahimovic, like James, has been impacted by his own rags-to-riches journey that has seen him overcome a difficult upbringing to become an international superstar.

By calling James out, Ibrahimovic implied that activism is OK, as long as it is his own activism.


“It’s funny that he’s said that because I believe back in 2018 he’s the same guy who said that when he was back in Sweden, he was talking about the same things,” James fired back. “Because his last name wasn’t a certain last name, he felt like there was some racism going on while he was out on the pitch . . . right?

“He did say that, right? Yeah. I thought he said that. I speak from a very educated mind. I’m the wrong guy to go at because I do my homework.”

Such is the new generation of athlete: the one that does their homework. Gone are the days where athletes did not care about the world around them. Times have changed, and the world of a superstar athlete has changed with it.

In the social media age, the public is constantly consumed by politics of varying scales. Everyone has an issue they are passionate about, whatever it may be, and those fortunate enough to be able to act on it are free to do so.

James and Ibrahimovic have spoken out about racism, Rashford and Mata about poverty, Rapinoe and the USWNT about sexism. All very different and very important battles that have been made stronger by the names mentioned alongside them.

Asking athletes to stay out of politics is no different than asking your local cashier, waitress, teacher or mechanic to do the same. Politics impact everyday life. Why shouldn’t they care?

Athletes have both the platform and the power to care. Not every sports star can or will, and that is fine. But for people like James, Rapinoe and Rashford, time away from the court or field is time that could be used to impact the world around them.

Sports previously proved a barrier to that. No longer.

Ibrahimovic can stick to sports all he wants because he has the freedom to do so. But he, like James, has the ability to say and do more.

As the world around the Swedish star changes, he will need to take notice.