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Does Le Return Of LeBron Signal A Comeback For Cleveland?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape up this week, our writer Jimi Izrael with us from Cleveland. From Boston, health care consultant and contribute or to National Review Online, Neil Minkoff. Sports writer and journalism professor Kevin Blackistone Joins us in our Washington, D.C. studios along with Paul Butler, law professor at Georgetown University. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks Michel. Hey fellas.

PAUL BUTLER: What's up, Jimi?

NEIL MINKOFF: What's happening?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: What's going on?

IZRAEL: Welcome to the shop. How are we doing?


MARTIN: That's right. What's up?

IZRAEL: All right, well...

MARTIN: A good day for bike riding. Good day for riding a bike.

IZRAEL: Parlez vous francais? - because it's one of those days 'cause - let's get things started. All eyes are on the Tour de France. I'm not talking about that 12-inch - my Kraftwerk. I'm talking about the sports event. Shut out to Kraftwerk. I'm kidding. Most Americans actually care more about badminton. KB - Kevin Blackistone, you're the sports guy here.


IZRAEL: The World Cup brought out American fans. Why aren't there more Tour de France parties?

BLACKISTONE: Because - because there's no Lance Armstrong. I mean, let's face it. Everybody got tuned in to Lance setting all these records over there. He became an international phenomenon, and now he's not there, and his ignominious departure under the drug clout, I think, really spoiled it for everybody. It spoiled it for me. I'm a cycling fan. I've covered a few Tour de France. In fact, I road my bike in today. But I must admit that after turning out the Tour de France for a couple years, I'm tuning back in this year.

MARTIN: How come?

BLACKISTONE: And check this out, Jimi.


BLACKISTONE: There's a brother riding for one of the French teams 'cause...

IZRAEL: Just one? Clutch the pearls.


IZRAEL: Holy mackerel. we're making our way up in the world, huh?

MARTIN: What's his name?

BLACKISTONE: His name is...

IZRAEL: Leroy.

BLACKISTONE: ...Kevin Reza - R, E, Z, A. He rides for Team Europcar.

MARTIN: You just like him because he's a Kevin.

BLACKISTONE: (Laughing) Well, that, too.

IZRAEL: Right.

BLACKISTONE: So I'm tuning in.

MARTIN: Neil likes it, right Neil? Neil, were you watching?

MINKOFF: Absolutely not, actually.


MARTIN: Ok. All right, nevermind

MINKOFF: I was the one who was confused as to why it wasn't. I think, I mean - for me, part of it also is not just the no Lance but the fact that, you know, it's a sport that seems inherently dirty, and I think that really changed the way we view it.

MARTIN: Well I must - I mean, that make sense to me. Kevin, just briefly on this - do you think that's the case...


MARTIN: ...If you feel like there's no way he can win 'cause Lance Armstrong's point is you can't win unless you cheat.

BLACKISTONE: Absolutely correct.

MARTIN: Do you think that's true?

BLACKISTONE: It's the dirtiest sport I've ever been around. And there is an entire culture of cheating in the Tour de France that goes back to the early years of the Tour de France. In fact. the first winner of the Tour de France won it a few years later, and he got disqualified after they found out he took a train between a couple of points on the...

MARTIN: Oh. stop.



BLACKISTONE: They've been cheating for a long time at this sport.

MARTIN: Oh, man.


MARTIN: All right, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Well, you know, much like Lance Armstrong, this Len Bias's athletic career was badly tarnished by - well, you know shortly after the University of Maryland basketball star was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1986, he died of a cocaine overdose. Well, now the University of Maryland plans to induct him in their athletic hall of fame. Some people say that's just not right. Neil, as our resident sports fan, does he deserve a place?

MINKOFF: I think that he does deserve a place. I am against the sort of moral cause - moral ideas - of keeping someone with great talent out of a hall of fame. What's wrong with having someone in the hall of fame and on his plaque it says greatest basketball player in Maryland - died tragically due to drugs? Why can't Charlie Hustle - you know why can't Major League Baseball build a wing - like the bad apple wing that has a plaque up that says Charlie Hustle - more hits than anybody - gambled on baseball - lied about it. It's part - just part of the fabric of the sport. And trying to ignore or pretend the all-time hit leader and eventually the all-time home run leader or someone with the talent of Len Bias didn't exist is s pointless.

IZRAEL: The bad apple wing, ladies and gentlemen.

MARTIN: I think that's funny. Kevin, what do you think?

IZRAEL: Professor.

MARTIN: Yeah, what do you think?

BLACKISTONE: I agree with Neil. I don't want the bad apple wing. But what I would like is to have athletes put in the halls of fame based on what they do on the field or on the court. But I'd like their entire narrative to be a part of that. And so with Len Bias, I want it to be known that he died because of a cocaine overdose - that there was a Len Biass bill that was written - that this led to three strikes, you're out - all these sorts of things. I want the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame to acknowledge that the most important person in the 19th century is a guy they have enshrined there by the name of Cap Anson - not because of his managing record, his playing record - all that - because he's the guy that drew the color barrier.

MARTIN: So the sport was integrated before he - there actually were players of color before black players.

BLACKISTONE: Exactly. Fleetwood Walker was the player is the player that - he refused to play against and he got everyone else to agree.

MARTIN: Got everyone else to agree - what do you think, Paul?

BUTLER: I wish my brothers in the barbershop would get off their high horse. Len Bias was not a bad apple, and his playing career was not tarnished. His death was a tragic accident. But who among us has not done something wrong? I mean, President Obama used cocaine. Are we going to call him a bad apple? Give me a break.

MARTIN: Really? So you think it shouldn't be mentioned. You think it should - he should be inducted into the hall of fame, but it shouldn't be mentioned. The circumstances of why he never had a professional career shouldn't be mention.

BUTLER: Dude had mad basketball skills. He brought you in Maryland tons of fame and money. That's why he should be in the hall of fame.

MARTIN: Jimi, what do you think?

IZRAEL: I think what you do away from the thing you're being recognized from - for - is inconsequential. I mean, you know - I don't know. Jimmy Carter was a pretty decent leftist president but he wasn't a great disco dancer. Do we - not take that it his bio? I mean, who cares? I mean, he was a fairly decent president.


IZRAEL: This guy - decent basketball player. Who cares if he ate cornflakes with his left hand or if he had a cocaine problem? That's so not part of the narrative that we're celebrating when we put him in the hall of fame. So I don't...

MARTIN: What if an athlete raped a girl?

IZRAEL: I'm not certain that has anything to do with his athletic ability.

MARTIN: Paul? - anybody? - anybody? - anybody want to take that?

BUTLER: If you're...

MARTIN: What if an athlete raped a girl? - great athlete raped a girl.

BUTLER: I mean, I don't want to do some kind of character evaluation of everybody who we put in the hall of fame.

MARTIN: Why not? We do. We vote on - we vote on them right? We vote on everybody. It's not - you're not just automatic. We vote. If the decision.

BUTLER: That's on basis of their ability

MARTIN: It's not a metric. You vote. It's a decision.

BUTLER: Yeah but the metric should be their athletic skills not their characters as human being. Because, if we do then a whole lot of people are going to come out of the hall of fame.

IZRAEL: That's right. It's going to be mad.

BLACKISTONE: And that's why I say I think their narrative should be a part of their plaque. Their narrative should be a part of their...

MARTIN: But he doesn't think so. You think it should why?

BLACKISTONE: I think it should be because I think it's important to see Len Bias as one of us as well. He's an extraordinary athlete that most of us cannot beat, but he also had a tragic flaw. And I think other people - I think, you know, other people - there are people in halls of fame who have committed criminal acts, and I think that should be a part of it.


MINKOFF: I agree completely.

MARTIN: All right - two and two. You know, listens - I mean - it's funny because this is one of those that we have another, like, straight down divider like two and two - I don't know what that means. I guess it means it's hard. Maybe, it's a hard question.


MARTIN: I don't know. You're listening to our weekly barbershop roundtable. We're joined by writer Jimi Izrael, law professor Paul Butler, sports writer and professor Kevin Blackstone and health care consultant Neil Minkoff. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks Michel. Interestingly enough, the decision came down after the barbershop guys met last week - coincidence?


IZRAEL: I - well, anyway, as you guys know, I'm not a hater, but it's weird that all of a sudden, Cleveland has got love for him again. You know, I guess they figure I'm back, LeBron's back. You know, the possibilities are endless. But I don't know. People look at him as kind of a role model and - or people might want to put him up there as a role model and I'm hard-line on this. Your parent should be a role model. Anyone that's carrying a basketball - it's just carrying a basketball. I mean, they can't teach you anything about life, necessarily. But Kevin Blackistone, you wrote a column saying sports and the world need more quote, unquote, "activists like LeBron James." Why so much for the Bronsky?

BLACKISTONE: Well, because I'm looking at his development over the past four years. I'm looking at the fact that no one was more unequivocal in his disgust for Donald Sterling as a player than was LeBron James who vowed not to play another game if Donald Sterling is still connected to the NBA. I look at the protest over Trayvon Martin that he staged along with Dwyane Wade, which I thought was very powerful. I look at the voice that he's had behind closed doors with the union, pointing out what he believes to be an inequitable economic relationship with the owners. So I see in LeBron James, you know, the son of a single parent who didn't go to college, who started playing a man's game for money as a mere teenager - and look at his development. And I think it's been remarkable. And I think he's, you know - I think he's turned himself into a real spokesperson for athletes - professional athletes in this country.

MARTIN: Paul, what do you think. I'm curious. One of the reasons I'm curious about you take on this is your book "Let's Get Free" is about how not famous people can have an impact on the things that are very much present in their lives, like the criminal justice system. One of the things you talk about is things like do your jury duty, you know - don't just shirk your jury duty. You know, go and step up for things like that. What's your take on that.

BUTLER: LeBron James - mad props. He's the citizen athlete of our time. The subtitle of my book was a Hip-Hop Theory of Justice. And I would always get these questions - what about hip-hop artists? Are they involved in the struggle. And the answers is - most of them - no because they're too concerned about paper just like a lot of athletes. All they want is their money - Michael Jordan's famous comment, Republicans buy sneakers, too. So, you know, I have so much respect for LeBron James. He's doing, for athletes and civic engagement, what Magic is doing for athletes and business development. So I hope he goes into politics after his NBA career, especially in Jimi's mad conservative Cleveland, Ohio.

MARTIN: (Laughing) Neil, what do you think?

MINKOFF: I - you know - I don't have any disagreement with that. I think that what LeBron has said and done is very mature. It's a potentially dangerous place for him to be - not truly dangerous but, you know, could be limiting. There's always that fine line between, you know, the public statements becoming too much or appearing preachy, but he certainly does not seem to me as if he's crossed that line yet - and the fact that so much of it has been thinking global, acting local - so much of what he wrote and said has been about his hometown and where he comes from and helping the kids there - that it would certainly deflect from a lot of any criticism that could arise from him seeming to be too...

MARTIN: What do you mean by dangerous? You mean the sense that the hype couldn't possibly meet - the expectations can't possibly be met? Is that what you meant?

MINKOFF: Or people getting tired of it - of being, you know, talked at - talked to - or - activism is double-edged sword. I mean, ask Kareem about that. You know, Kareem has written many times that he thinks the fact that he was so outspoken really limited his opportunities to participate in basketball after his playing days were done. I know tons of people who love the music, but they've been to see Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jame in concert, and they don't want to be preached to. So I think that's the issue - is could there be an economic downside if he crosses that line. But I don't think he's crossed it.

MARTIN: Well, let me - before we go - Jimi, you're the Clevelander here. Cleveland's going to host the opening ceremony for the Gay Games the summer. LeBron is back, of course. The Republican National Committee announced they're going to hold the 2016 convention there - so.

IZRAEL: And I'm here.

BLACKISTONE: Yeah, of course.

MARTIN: Yeah, of course.


MARTIN: That's probably why they're all going.

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: But I mean...

IZRAEL: That's what I'm trying to tell you.

MARTIN: So is Cleveland back?

IZRAEL: Well, I'm hoping that LeBron got his teachings certification while he was in Florida because the Cleveland schools desperately need some good substitutes. So I don't know for a fact that Cleveland - I don't know if we can call it a comeback #LLCoolJ - but I think we're going in the right direction. If we could just get the schools on track - as a parent, that's my concern. I'm troubled that we live in a city where people are more concerned about the sports and people are misspelling LeBron's name on the back jerseys, and we're not concerned about the schools. The schools are not great. So it's certainly the right direction. The river's not on fire.

MARTIN: No, you make and important point.

IZRAEL: We've got that going for us, you know.

MARTIN: You know, I'm sorry - well - OK then - I hope I'm not disappointing, but there is one more sports thing I did want to talk about which is something that's kind of of personal interest to me - which is, as a woman journalist who sometimes covers things - I've never been sports journalist per se, but I'm a person who's covered a lot of things that a lot of women, sometimes, have not covered an, you know - Pam Oliver - longtime NFL sports reporter most famous for being on the sideline, being replaced by Erin Andrews. She's going to move to the number two announcing team, and then she's going to move off the sidelines altogether. And I just, you know - I just - look. Kevin, you're the sports guy. I have to ask. What's up with that?

BLACKISTONE: Well, you know, as soon as they signed Erin Andrews several months ago, the writing was on the wall that was pretty much the end of Pam Oliver's face time on Fox.

MARTIN: But why? - because she's 53? - because people just like to - they just like to change their cast? Why?

BLACKISTONE: Well, in part because.

MARTIN: She's great at her job.

BLACKISTONE: She's great at her job.

MARTIN: She asked great questions.


MARTIN: She clearly knows the game. She doesn't play the wink, wink, nod...


MARTIN: ...Talk to me because I'm cute game.

BLACKISTONE: But she's not Erin Andrew. And Erin Andrews has become a phenomena in television broadcasting and in commercial sports. The last several years, and she's the - she was the hottest commodity out there. What concerns me about this is the loss of another black face and black voice in sports broadcasting, particularly, when it comes to women. She was almost, pretty much, alone with the exception of a couple of women who do some lesser games on ESPN. But also, you know, the - I don't even know how to put this but - blonde white women who continue to get opportunities. Erin Andrews really doesn't fit into that because she's really very good at her job.

MARTIN: I was going to say, is she good at her job?

BLACKISTONE: But I have - women who are in my class at the University of Maryland who sometimes ask whether or not they'll be able to get that far given that they don't fit this particular aesthetic. And I think that's disconcerting.

MARTIN: Neil, what do you think?

MINKOFF: I think it's - I think the really fascinating thing is that TV - it certainly seems as if - look - they're going with the cute blonde, right? But all of the - I haven't seen one positive comment about it right? All of the pushback has been kind of like the way we're discussing it, which is Pam Oliver is a fantastic reporter. She's basically a legend. She's been doing this and doing this at a high level for a very long time - why replace her with a face? I mean, what I knew about Erin Andrews, even as a guy who watches a lot of sports, is that someone filmed her in a hotel room and she takes probiotics. I don't know anything more about her, where Pam Oliver was someone I respected, and that's been the push back. So who do they think they're pleasing with these moves?

MARTIN: You all.

BLACKISTONE: The male audience.

MARTIN: You all. Paul, what do you think?

BUTLER: Well, that's who they were pleasing 20 years ago when they hired Pam. She got that job because she had skills and because then, she was young and hot. So how much can she complain now when the next young and hot girl comes along?

MARTIN: OK. Jimi, what do you think?

IZRAEL: I don't think it is ageism. I think it's racism. Erin doesn't - I mean, Pam Oliver doesn't appeal to the core demographic, you know. And I think, sometimes, big media thinks racism is good business. That's what I think.

BLACKISTONE: Well, they have...

MARTIN: What do you think?

BLACKISTONE: ...all those African-American men who are doing commentaries. I love watching football now 'cause I like seeing all of the black commentators, so.


BLACKISTONE: So, it's an instance where, you know, you can't say it's now racism because there are men - black men - who are hired. You can't exactly say it's sexism because white women get hired It's just black women are in between and they get pushed out.

MARTIN: It's interesting because - I think you were making a good point because 20 - Pam Oliver's got the twenty years on it. She wasn't Pam Oliver 20 years ago. She wasn't as great as she is now. I mean, she grew into being great. So maybe Erin Andrews will grow into being great, you know, as well. It's an interesting question. It shows you there's not - the lines aren't as bright anymore, even though, maybe, they are. It's hard to complain when another woman gets a job because - if she has mad skills, then we'll see. So I don't know. All right, here we go. Jimi Izrael is a writer. You can find his blog at jimiizrael.com. Neil Minkoff is a health care consulting contributor to the conservative magazine National Review Online. Kevin Blackistone is a sports columnist and professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. Paul Butler is a law professor at Georgetown University. Thank you all so much.


BUTLER: Woof, woof.

MINKOFF: Yeah yeah yeah.


MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough of Barbershop

buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes Store or at npr.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.