Opinion: Can LeBron James Re-Define the Damaging Success Story Americans Have Come to Love?

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When Josh Jacobs was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft, he received a signing bonus of $6.7 million. The story of the star running back from the University of Alabama quickly circulated, featured in the headlines in major media outlets such as USA Today, NBC News, ESPN, and more.

Perhaps the most prominent headlines highlighted how he used his hefty signing bonus to buy a house for his father.  You see, Jacobs had been homeless as a child, living with his father and his siblings in cars or cheap and temporary hotel rooms.  So, the purchase of the home embodied this reversal fortune, this achievement of success, most succinctly, for sure.

And one can understand why Jacobs’ story grabbed the headlines. Americans love this kind of success story: the rags-to-riches story, the story of individual success, not social success.  In fact, the lowlier and more degraded the social conditions one had to surmount, the more people like the story.

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Such stories as Jacobs’ move us, or distract us, to focus on and celebrate an exceptional rise to wealth rather than the rule and reality of poverty and homelessness in America, which, if not inescapable, is certainly difficult to escape.

Indeed, just last week, for CNBC’s feature section “make it,” Kathleen Elkins spotlighted Jacobs again along with other professional athletes, recounting how these stars spent their first big paychecks.

She quotes Jacobs’ reflections on his childhood:

“I normalized a lot of things growing up — like I never thought, Damn, I’m sleeping in a car.”

As for his hardship, he says philosophically, “I feel like it’s an advantage. Because I grind. I wouldn’t get complacent because I never had it easy.”

Jacobs’ normalization of poverty and homelessness mirrors that of the dominant American cultural and political mentality overall.

And when he talks about poverty as a kind of blessing or advantage, rather than a social ill or a failing of our social project that accounts for the waste, destruction, and suffering of millions of American lives, well, this kind of storytelling satisfies the dominant classes in America as well. It absolves us of responsibility for immiserating social conditions such as poverty and homelessness.

We don’t have to deal with the reality that the number of homeless has risen for third year in a row under Trump’s administration or that poverty, in places like West Virginia, is increasing rather decreasing, as the growing number of jobs available in retail and service industries do not pay a living wage. Or, more appropriately, if we recognize it, we are not responsible for it.

Last December, though, NBA superstar and social activist LeBron James released a commercial through Nike that challenges and makes the effort of re-writing the story of American success, of the American Dream itself.

Instead of simply focusing on the success of those who have made it out of poverty, James suggests we ask ourselves as a collective society why we allow and accept the degrading, miserable, life-repressing conditions in which so many live and work in the United States.

We tend not to ask these questions when we hear stories like those of Josh Jacobs because those stories focus on his millions and normalize, even valorize, the misery.

He forecasts a larger dream than that of individual success and riches. What could be, his commercial suggests, a more wonderful and meaningful dream than creating a society without poverty, in which people had their needs met and lived with dignity? What if that were the American Dream?

He narrates the commercial to change our dream, questioning how we tell success stories:

“We always hear about an athlete’s humble beginnings, how they emerged from poverty or tragedy to beat the odds. They’re supposed to be stories of determination that capture the dream. They’re supposed to be stories that let you know that people are special.

“But you know what would be really special? If there were no more humble beginnings.”

And James hasn’t just narrated this story in a commercial. He has realized this story in his founding and creation of his I Promise school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, a school that educates some 1,400 kids.

And it doesn’t just educate them. It has a food pantry to help nourish families in need and provides transportation to make sure students can get to school safely and regularly.

James is re-defining his own success in social terms, not in terms of his individual bank account. His success story focuses not on the individual outcome but on the social conditions in which masses of Americans are living, and his measure of success is how effective he is in using the resources he has to address those conditions, seeking to eliminate poverty and help people develop and grow humanely and fully.

He doesn’t valorize or even accept the conditions of scarcity and suffering in which many live; he doesn’t buy into the damaging and inhumane rationalization that having to overcome such obstacles and suffering makes people stronger and better somehow.

He recognizes that people need support, require a good soil, so to speak, if their abilities and talents are to be cultivated. And he recognizes that cultivating and developing people to their full capacity benefits society as a whole, whereas wasting and under-developing people creates a drag on society, beyond just being inhumane.

While many in our maniacally meritocratic society like to rationalize poverty as a condition people deserve because they just haven’t tried hard enough or because they just aren’t inherently lives of value, lives that matter, James is re-writing the story to highlight the responsibility of creating a society that recognizes all people’s inherent value and provides conditions that nurture and cultivate that value for the benefit of all, not just for individual wealth.

Let’s be clear: changing entrenched social narratives is hard, as is transforming how we dream.

James is offering a new content for our American Dream. Will you dream a big dream with him?