Shut Up and Dribble, Shut Up and Code

The AC Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic had some advice for NBA superstar LeBron James.

James responded saying that “There’s no way I will ever just stick to sports because I understand how this platform … how powerful my voice is,” explaining that he tries to stay informed that he can speak intelligently towards issues of equality, social injustice, racism, systematic voter suppression and other issues that affect the communities he comes from and are invested in.

Why does this “shut and dribble” thing keep coming up?

Part of it may be the issue involved. Race and racism are charged topics, so many of us rather avoid them as opposed to speaking candidly about our views. We don’t often hear folks in the public tell athletes of any color not to speak on supposedly “apolitical” topics like breast cancer awareness or supporting veterans. Conservations about race snap us out of the escape that sports provide.

It also has something to do about the speaker, and race has some implications here. There’s a kind of subtle underlying anti-blackness that renders criticism or observations about society less legitimate, less objective when they come from folks who look like LeBron, (not only but) especially regarding issues of race and racism. Coaches like Greg Popovich and Steve Kerr, who speak on the same issues as LeBron, don’t get the same type of reactions or pushback. None of us would ever expect Tom Brady to speak on any social issue (and not in a million years on racism), but I can only surmise that if he did, folks who disagree would speak towards whatever he expressed without rejecting his ability to express it. “Shut and dribble” is a petty kind of “cancel culture” but forget you read this sentence because we all know only the Left does that.

But even “taking race out of it,” there’s a funny way we rank certain skills and their correlating occupations. We don’t hear the same “stay in your lane” criticisms towards people in other fields. There is an idea that certain expertises translates to other areas, while others don’t. The intelligence we seem to put at the top of the social hierarchy is competency in math.

We tend view math as a kind of supreme knowledge above other ways of understanding the world. We tell LeBron and others to “shut up and dribble,” but think folks in Silicon Valley can solve all the pressing global political, economic, and ecological issues with code. The U.S. elected a reality show star in part because he presented himself as a successful businessman (the logic going that if you can run a business, you can run a country). Analytics has transformed the game of basketball, though ironically, any hooper knows that an and-one dunk on someone is worth more than a three-pointer.

Depending on who the expert is, expertise can become more or less legible. People from the front office to the fans often underestimate how analytical you have to be in order to be professional basketball player as good as LeBron. But because we put higher weight on mathematical knowledge, experiential and intuitive intelligence gets reduced to subjectivity.

Critic have pointed out the flaws in this type of thinking. David Golumbia writes about computationalism—the underlying presumption that computer-based expertise trumps all other expertise because everything in the world is ultimately reducible to computational processes. In his book Frank Pasquale, writes about the pervasive idea that “at bottom, humans simply are patterns of stimuli and response, behavior and information.” Connected to Pasquale’s words, Raymond Tallis wrote a critique of scientism in A

With surveillance capitalism and the attention economy, we live in an age of a kind of data supremacy—where data becomes fact, even though we know data is facsimile of the truth (a good example here would be crime statistics). Pointing to data is the perfect way to veil our ideologies or assert that we don’t have them. Give enough data that shows celestial bodies orbit each other differently than we thought, and the astrophysics community changes according. Data will show that your team’s chances of winning goes up if they shoot more threes. But as we have seen, no amount of data about systemic oppression will ever convince a vast amount of people that it exists.

How often do you hear “shut up and code”?

Part of the pushback against LeBron is a pushback of other ways of knowing. LeBron is speaking from his knowledge and from experiences. But in this country, we devalue both when it comes from black folks. This puts LeBron in a rhetorical lose-lose. If LeBron provides statistics of racial disparities in wealth, housing, education, healthcare, incarcerations, etc., I couldn’t imagine the reactions to him being much different. If he had more formal expertise (like a degree) in what he speaks on, folks would call it rhetoric, indoctrination, political correctness, etc. They also say his current privilege prevents him from being an authority of the subject.

Essentially, if he gave data, they’d say “No, you need experience.” If he gave experience, they’d say “No, you need data.”

I’m starting to think that the “dribble” part isn’t all that important. It’s the “shut up”

Joshua Adams is a writer and journalist from Chicago. UVA & USC. Taught media and communication at DePaul & Salem State. Twitter: @journojoshua

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