Jonathan Davis has long admired LeBron James. Yes, the Los Angeles Lakers star is a superhuman basketball player, but that doesn’t even come up in conversation with Davis.
Instead, he prefers to applaud LeBron James the person.
Despite being one of the world’s most famous athletes, you never hear a word of negativity about him off the court, Davis notes. James is a family man who has opened a school while donning many different philanthropic hats.
“He’s wise,” says Davis, the 28-year-old Toronto Blue Jays outfielder, over the phone from his home in Wiggins, Miss. “He knows what to say, how much to say and when to say it.
“When I look for a leader, that’s what I see.”
Such leadership from James was on display again last week in his comments following the chaos in Washington, D.C., which saw crowds of President Donald Trump supporters breach the U.S. Capitol.
“We live in two Americas, and that was a prime example of that,” James told media, referencing how the police response to the Capitol siege differed from the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer.
Davis agrees with that, adding that he felt disheartened watching the attack unfold on television.
“People of colour were labelled ‘thugs’ and all types of names [during last year’s BLM protests],” he says. “But when this took place at Capitol Hill, these people were just referred to as ‘angry protesters.’ Which even further shows you how people think and the double standard.”
The ordeal in Washington, which came on the heels of a racial justice movement that reverberated across the world, further underscores the importance of speaking out against systemic issues. Last year, athletes cemented their space in societal conversations, with their words and messages carrying more weight and influence than ever before.
Davis says that he’s taken keen notice of that over the past several months, while also evaluating the type of change he can personally bring about.
As a Black baseball player, he’s part of a small club that has seen its numbers dwindle over the past two decades — Black or African-American players represented just 7.5 per cent of opening day rosters in 2020, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES).
In the past, that dearth contributed to an environment where it seemed difficult for players to speak up, compared to a league like the NBA, where Black players aren’t the minority. Complicating matters in recent seasons is the fact that CC Sabathia, Curtis Granderson and Adam Jones — three of MLB’s leading Black voices — are no longer in the league (Sabathia and Granderson retired following the 2019 campaign, while Jones played for the Orix Buffaloes of the Japan Pacific League last year).
“It’s a heavy burden,” Doug Glanville, a big-leaguer-turned-adjunct professor told me in an interview early last year. “There’s a real blind spot at times when you’re playing because the demand to perform every day and the fear of losing edges, and the fear of backlash — it’s an understandable challenge and concern.”
However, it will be intriguing to see if the events of the past year allow baseball players to shed such concerns or at least look at them with a different perspective. Davis acknowledges that baseball has made recent progress with regard to activism, but also says it’s important for players to consider their situations.
“Everybody has their place and role to play,” he says. “Everybody can’t be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but everybody can stand up for what’s right. And so, in terms of what might happen down the road, I don’t know what that looks like. But I know as of right now, I stand for change, but I don’t think it’s my role to do everything in my power to try to let everybody know where I’m at [on social media].
“However, if the opportunity presents itself, I’m going to tell you the truth or what I think.”
The way Davis sees it, his most valuable contributions will come from work in his immediate community. That led him to refocus his efforts this off-season: In December, Davis partnered with MLB to host a drive-thru Play Ball event and, last week, he took part in the Hattiesburg, Miss., stop of The Players Alliance’s U.S. tour, distributing baseball equipment, food and COVID-19 supplies.
The Players Alliance, which features Granderson (president) and Sabathia (vice-president) on its board of directors, consists of over 100 Black current and former professional baseball players who aim to use their “collective voice and platform to create increased opportunities for the Black community in every aspect of our game and beyond.”
“Right now, that’s where I’m focused because there are a lot of people impacted by that,” Davis says of his recent charity work. “And that’s tangible for me right now. You look at Hattiesburg the other day, we had the event and we were given a certain amount of supplies. Literally, within an hour, we were almost out of supplies. And that’s just because people in this area have a need — and a lot of times, our communities get overlooked.”