LeBron James has just been ranked by Sports Illustrated as the NBA’s best player, following the release by the prestigious magazine of the final part of its “Top 100 NBA players of 2016” ranking, on September 4. This is not the only reason why the basketball star has been in the news over the past few weeks.
In mid-August James announced that his namesake foundation would provide a guaranteed four-year scholarship for the qualifying students at the University of Akron, Ohio – his hometown – enrolled in his “I Promise” programme. In practical terms, this will allow up to 2,300 disadvantaged students to go to college for free. The tuition and university’s general service fee at Akron currently amount to $9,500 per year.
James takes care of adults as well. Through a new scheme called “I Promise, too”, which was presented at the beginning of September, his foundation will now help adults obtain their GEDs, the equivalent of the high school diploma. Besides being a great basketball player, LeBron James seems to be a very good guy, too.
Although James’ charitable programmes are among the widest reaching, he is hardly the only sport’s celebrity to create scholarships or donate money to the less fortunate. Tiger Woods also has his foundation, while Andre Agassi has donated millions of dollars to help kids in his native Las Vegas, to mention but a few. On the other side of the Atlantic, David Beckham is one of the biggest givers, and not just among sport’s celebrities. He is not the only one. However, no doubt we read stories like these more commonly in the U.S. than Europe, then it begs the question: are these stories actually rarer in Europe or is it just that the European news media do not like them as much as the American media do? A bit of both. American-style philanthropy is formalized and systematic, possibly like no other, and donations are typically made in the public eye. In Europe, with some notable exceptions, it is not quite like that and there is even a widespread belief that showing (off) donations somehow demeans their moral worth.
A strong argument in favour of exposure is that it draws more people into philanthropy; it sets the example. This argument could be stretched over to the broader question of the public image of elite athletes, and celebrities in general. If the media decide that the bad guy is entertaining and the good guy is boring, from a social point of view this will hardly draw more people into good conduct; chances are the opposite will occur. Needless to say, the image of sport’s stars is particularly impactful on the young audience, although it would be naïve to imagine that adults are immune from the message.
Sport’s stars make the headlines when they win. The second most typical factor that triggers the media’s attention is the athlete’s personality. In fact, a “loser” with a marketable personality tends to get more media coverage than a winner who does not fight in pubs, collect extra-marital affairs, or offend teammates on social networks. It would be great if European elite athletes themselves, and the news media that portray them, were keener on using sport to positively inspire people. The position of sport in today’s popular culture enables sport-related actors to take up social responsibility as effectively as (if not more effectively than) business corporations.
Rosarita Cuccoli, Scientific Advisor on the News Media, Sport and Citizenship