LeBron James and 50 Cent – Public Enemies #1, by Bruce H. Edwards

A New Visions Commentary paper published October 2003 by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited.

Across America, bouncing basketballs are heard a little more often. “Professional basketball player” reigns as the top answer when young black boys are asked what they want to be when they grow up.

A close second is being a rapper. In local talent shows, young men believe they are stars and wait for an agent or producer to bring them a life of money, women, jewelry, videos and fame.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with playing in the NBA or rapping. Both professions have taken many a black youth from the ghetto, made him rich and given his family a better life. Sports and entertainment are embedded deep in our culture. That’s the problem.

Far too many young black boys think being an athlete or entertainer is the only positive thing they can do. Sports and music stars are their heroes… the ones who “made it.” They have it all, and they command the all-important respect that comes from living large. It’s certainly better than idolizing a pimp or drug dealer, but these perceived limits still hurt our community.

Black youth want to be just like LeBron James and 50 Cent. They want riches and celebrity. They usually don’t explore other career options, and, tragically, school is an inconvenience.

The quest for fame and fortune is a trap door we’ve fallen through for generations. Sports and entertainment stars who “make it” mistakenly symbolize the only successes of the black community to many of our youth.

Just 43 years after the end of the Civil War, black people still had nothing more than their freedom. But black people could claim boxing champion Jack Johnson as their hero. Johnson could legally hit a white man and get paid for it. He wore fur coats and fancy suits and flashed more money than most whites. He alone, a superstar athlete, was the symbol of black power.

In the 1930s, when black men were hanged from trees on a regular basis, Joe Louis was our pride and joy. The post-depression era hit blacks the hardest, but we had the world heavyweight-boxing champion!

When jobs and educational opportunities for black veterans were bleak at best after World War II, Jackie Robinson gave black America its brightest moment since emancipation. If a black man could integrate the national pastime of baseball, then surely we had arrived! Unfortunately, as far as mainstream America was concerned, we arrived as a people through an athlete.

Besides athletes, who’s gained more fame in the history of black America than entertainers? In 1915, black singer and actor Bert Williams made over $100,000. In 1963, we watched in awe as Sidney Poitier became the first black man to receive an Academy Award. From Duke Ellington to the Jackson Five to Tupac and the morals-deprived Lil’ Kim, entertainers have been important symbols of black achievement in America.

At the same time, there have always been black intellectuals who have achieved greatness in academia and business. The list is long and distinguished, yet they only receive token recognition. These successful doctors, lawyers, inventors, writers, researchers and businessmen, through no fault of their own, have escaped the title of “role model.” I guess they’re not flashy, wealthy, glamorous or cool. Or, God forbid, they might be “too white.”

Which brings me back to LeBron James and 50 Cent. I have nothing against them, but I resent that they are being idolized while so many other great role models are overlooked. Parents, educators and the media are complicit by not exposing our children to things that would stimulate their young minds.

How many black boys will try and fail to become the next LeBron James or 50 Cent? What will become of all the years spent on jump shots and rhymes? Where is the payoff? Saying, “I was trying to reach that star and follow my dreams” will not feed them or open doors. If just a fraction would aspire to other professions, the black community would change dramatically for the better.

Playing sports builds character and promotes teamwork. But, even with talent, only one in a million may ever have the fame and fortune of LeBron James. The same goes for the young man spending $75 and waiting for hours to get his rap demo heard by a parasite producer.

Our black children need balance in thought, balance in their habits and a much broader view of the types of careers they can make for themselves. Our children need to dream a diversity of dreams. They need to know they can be respected for being something other than an athlete or entertainer.

(Project 21 member Bruce H. Edwards is a speechwriter, poet, journalist and public speaker living in Lexington, Kentucky. Comments may be sent to [email protected].)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

Project 21, a leading voice of black conservatives for over 25 years, is sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Its members have been quoted, interviewed or published over 40,000 times since the program was created in 1992. Contributions to the National Center are tax-deductible and greatly appreciated, and may be earmarked exclusively for the use of Project 21.