The public school that LeBron James and his foundation opened in Akron, Ohio, two weeks ago is impressive on so many levels. It goes out of its way to service students who are struggling academically and have had difficult childhoods, and it offers so many layers of support, from small class sizes to daily meals to a longer school day and year. His foundation also offers educational opportunities for students’ parents, and free tuition to the University of Akron for students who have received mentoring in his program. Like Bill and Melinda Gates and other educational philanthropists, James is ensuring that his commitment to education is grounded in strategies that researchers have deemed successful.
President Trump’s comment about James’ intelligence misses the point entirely, as this is an athlete with more riches than he can imagine, yet he’s choosing to commit significant time and money to students whose futures hang in the balance. James’ school will receive plenty of attention in the years ahead, and he will surely be there to oversee and continue supporting it; in so many ways, this is as wise an investment as any American can make. James’ is by no means the only urban school that is working to turn lives around, but it’s most definitely a model for others to consider following. In that sense, James is an athlete and leader who many of us might consider emulating as well.
Curtis Granderson, the Toronto Blue Jays outfielder who has played for a number of teams in his baseball career, has taken a similar approach in terms of using his platform as a professional athlete to serve others. Granderson has promoted education, fitness and nutrition throughout his career, from his own foundation to the ballfield he helped build in Chicago. Granderson has won the Roberto Clemente Award, given annually to a major leaguer who has exemplified service and sportsmanship. Like James, Granderson sees his success as an opportunity to bring along younger generations, just as his parents – both educators – did for him.
Earlier in the summer, there was widespread coverage of James’ decision to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers. Right now, there’s talk about whether or not Granderson will be traded to the New York Yankees or some other team this month, as his Blue Jays are out of contention. While sports signings and trades are interesting, my real question about these 30-something athletes is what they’ll do with their careers after retirement. In what ways will they lead when they actually have the chance to serve their communities full-time? Will James open more schools? Will Granderson run for office? How will they lead?
In my school, I have a bunch of sports books on hand for any student who’s looking for a nonfiction read. Some of these books focus on athletes who have had impacted both sport and society, from Clemente to Arthur Ashe to Bill Bradley to Jackie Robinson. Their stories are some of the most important American narratives of the last 70 years, as they mark a place where fame and popular success overlap with civic engagement and a much deeper sense of victory. I hope we commit more time in our schools to reading and discussing the impact of sport on society.
In a lot of ways, the most fascinating athletes in society are the ones who add to their highlight reels after hanging up their spikes. Instead of game-winning baskets or home runs, this new footage captures these men and women changing the world, one step at a time. So whoever you play for, LeBron and Curtis, I’m not worried – just keep on following that famous mantra: We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.