In an age marked by kneeling protests and cross-league walkouts in sports, which gained new traction in 2020, it’s easy to put too much faith in the ability of professional athletes to make social change.
True empowerment will only come when more players cross the longstanding divide between management and labor and enter the ranks of team ownership, where the real influence lies. That’s why the latest off-court move from LeBron James, largely overlooked amid the whirling excitement of the N.C.A.A. tournaments, is so intriguing.
James, the Los Angeles Lakers star, announced his small but significant stake in the Fenway Sports Group last week. As you might have guessed because of the conglomerate’s name, that makes him a part owner in the Boston Red Sox and gives him entree into baseball’s inner sanctum. The investment also adds to James’s shares in Liverpool of the Premier League and his foothold with NASCAR’s Roush Fenway Racing team, which he bought into in 2011.
It is a preview of things to come. Today’s athletes are beginning to realize that true strength lies not only in grass-roots activism and the chase for championships, but also in having a seat in team boardrooms. By doing that, they can sway leagues that remain halfhearted about transformation. Would the N.F.L. have blackballed Colin Kaepernick if a significant number of former Black players were at the owners’ table? Unlikely.
Athlete involvement in team ownership isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Mario Lemieux bought the Pittsburgh Penguins out of bankruptcy in 1999. Eleven years later, Michael Jordan became the first former N.B.A. player to control a majority interest in one of the league’s teams when he purchased the Charlotte Bobcats. (One of his first big moves was to rename his team the Hornets.) Those actions allowed Lemieux and Jordan to reap financial returns that their labor alone could not have produced.
But James’s increasing involvement in the corridors of power shows that today’s sports stars — more outspoken than Jordan and Lemieux, more inclined to push against entrenched wealth — are ready to use ownership as a means to push for more than personal gain.
With a boost from James, Renee Montgomery announced her retirement at age 32 to become the first W.N.B.A. player to own a part of one of the league’s teams, the Atlanta Dream, after its players rallied against a team co-owner, Kelly Loeffler, the firebrand Republican senator who angered the basketball world when she denounced the Black Lives Matter movement. The outspoken tennis stars Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams have signed up as team owners in the National Women’s Soccer League, as have a number of retired women’s soccer stars, in the wake of the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s fight for pay equity.
Expect more to come, with this generation’s athletes deeply aware of team owners’ direct power. Buying into the Fenway group allows James a chance to learn the ropes as he draws closer to one of his most cherished goals. I’m not talking about equaling or even surpassing Jordan’s haul of six N.B.A. titles. I’m talking about taking a majority financial stake in an N.B.A. team. For now, James must wait. League rules bar active players from joining ownership.
When the time comes, he’ll be ready. Now 36, he’s long been a business mogul, backed by a cadre of high-gloss, well-heeled advisers. If he needs wealthy investors to form a partnership and come along for the ride, he has more than a few options on speed dial. Not that he would need much help. James is said to be a billionaire, or nearly so.
Of all of today’s sports stars, James possesses the heaviest clout. He is the one most adept at standing up and speaking out — both inside the boardroom and, through his social activism, at street level.
That’s why he offered advice and connections to help Montgomery’s successful bid to purchase a part of the Dream. Montgomery, a two-time W.N.B.A champion, sat out last year’s truncated season to work as a grass-roots activist. After the players called for Loeffler’s ouster from her Senate seat, Loeffler lost a runoff election in January, an outcome that allowed James to flex.
“Stick to Sports,” James said in a Twitter post aimed at Loeffler in the wake of the sale to a group that included Montgomery. The barb turned the tables on what James and others have been told for years after they have spoken up on political matters.
The two basketball stars know that joining ownership offers them a new and important way to make their voices heard.
It’s one thing to kneel during the national anthem, attend marches or even lead teams on walkouts and work stoppages. Such moves are key. They enlighten, draw attention and energize passion. But in sports they are also not enough.
The limits athletes face became clear during the protest movement that swept through last summer. Team owners in the major North American men’s sports talked a good game and contributed millions of dollars to causes backed by players. But many of the same owners gave lavishly to President Donald J. Trump, who stood in direct opposition to everything the players were pushing for. Such double-dealing showed that the players might have had a megaphone, but money remains the language that packs the biggest punch.
Real transformation isn’t likely to happen unless enlightened athletes continue to cross the divide, enter the ranks of ownership and have their say on everything from the hiring of head coaches to an effort in sports to push for more accountability in policing. It’ll take time to get enough in place to make a consistent difference. Thankfully, owner-activists like LeBron James and Renee Montgomery are creating a road map.