General Motors’ splashy announcement video for its new electric-powered 2022 Hummer EV Edition was narrated by a familiar voice … LeBron James.
“The real revolutionaries,” James says in the video, “want to change the game forever.”
James endorses a lot of products — from sneakers to soft drinks to earbuds.
For him to be the frontman for Hummer trucks, however, is, to anyone who knows his history, a major plot twist, a healthy amount of trolling and, hopefully, a reminder about how far America has come when considering the concept of amateurism and young athletes.
Back on Dec. 30, 2002, LeBron turned 18 years old. His mother, Gloria, gave him the kind of present nearly every high school senior dreams of — a brand new car. In this case, a pewter-colored Hummer H2 with multiple televisions. Retail price: about $50,000.
LeBron and Gloria were on public assistance at the time, living in a sixth-floor, two-bedroom apartment on Akron’s tough west side. During LeBron’s childhood, they were often effectively homeless, crashing in various friends’ living rooms. For a stretch, LeBron separated from his mother and moved in with a local family so he could regularly attend elementary school.
Clearly there was no way Gloria James could afford a truck like that. Except, of course, her son was months away from becoming the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft and securing a slew of endorsement deals, including a $100 million contract with Nike.
Simply put, giving Gloria James a car note was, at that moment, perhaps the safest loan imaginable for a car dealer. There was virtually no way it wouldn’t be repaid. James was so good that even if he somehow suffered a serious injury, he would still be a high draft pick and earn an NBA salary.
“LeBron James is collateral enough,” a source told The New York Times at the time.
America’s bizarre fealty with the concept of “amateurism” however meant that people were offended. A kid whose high school games were selling out huge arenas across the country and being broadcast on national television deserved, to them, nothing.
Not even a loan.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association launched an investigation while the media went into overdrive. A birthday gift was now a topic du jour, not just on ESPN, but the network news shows, far off newspapers and national magazines.
The Jameses were hurt and humiliated. It was supposed to be a nice thing. Now the fact they were poor was a national discussion. LeBron responded, in a hint of the passive-aggressive ways that he would regularly engage in as an adult, by bringing a remote control Hummer to his next game and driving it around the court.
He then scored 50 points.
The OHSAA eventually ruled the loan was OK, but it found that the owner of a local sports clothing store gave LeBron two throwback jerseys for free. LeBron posed for a picture with the owner, which was later posted on the wall of the store. That was deemed an advertisement in exchange for the jerseys.
LeBron James was suspended for the rest of his senior season.
“This is a direct violation of the OHSAA bylaws on amateurism because, in face, LeBron did capitalize on athletic fame by receiving these gifts,” the organization announced.
LeBron was crushed because he and a group of boyhood friends had wanted to win a third state title for St. Vincent-St. Mary and, even better, be crowned national champions by USA Today.
Lawyers got involved. Everyone had an opinion. One side argued that the rules are the rules. The other argued the rules weren’t made for someone like LeBron James, of whom even OHSAA profited.
“It’s ridiculous to do this to this kid,” said Shaquille O’Neal, then the biggest star in the NBA. “Everybody’s capitalizing on him. And you guys try to persecute his character and take away his high school career?”
All of it came back to “amateurism,” a concept invented in the 1800s by English elites seeking to keep working-class athletes out of sports.
In an effort to keep the poor from beating them, rules were created to prohibit anyone from profiting off their talents. That meant those who toiled six days a week on farms and in factories wouldn’t be able to get paid for sport and thus be free to practice and play.
That meant the only athletes left were rich people, who had lots of leisure time for athletics. It was dubbed amateurism.
The entire idea was discriminatory and patently unfair, yet it was embraced and exported — namely to the Olympics (until it gave up on it in the 1980s) and then American high school and college sports.
James unknowingly changed the debate though. Even staunch defenders couldn’t argue that the car loan wasn’t a reasonable business transaction or that the free jerseys were harmless. And few could manage to keep a straight face when defending what seemed to be some ancient standard of puritanism.
What exactly was the value in keeping LeBron poor? What competitive advantage did he get by getting to dress like other kids, or get a car like rich kids?
Why should a talented high school musician or actress be allowed to make money and still play in the school band or appear in the school play, but a basketball player is banished?
Namely, what is the point?
The OHSAA soon relented and issued just a two-game suspension. St. Vincent-St. Mary managed to win without him, then LeBron and his friends went on to roll through the state tournament and get named national champions.
Then he immediately got super rich.
In the ensuing years, public opinion has shifted against amateurism. Politicians have even passed laws that will soon force the NCAA to abandon the concept and allow athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness.
At the time, LeBron didn’t know the impact his situation would have. He didn’t even know all the nuances of the debate. He was a high school kid in the middle of a storm.
His story was a simple and compelling argument, though, that challenged conventional wisdom at the time. It made people think. He later became a major proponent of allowing young athletes to exercise their economic rights.
Now he isn’t just driving a Hummer but being paid by GM to endorse it.
“Brings back so many great memories from my first Hummer,” LeBron tweeted, without mentioning the controversy that old truck created.
He who laughs last does so in an enormous, electric-powered truck, apparently, because the real revolutionaries want to change the game forever.
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