Shut Up and Dribble, produced by LeBron James and available via Showtime, examines black athletes who have refused to “stick to sports” and have instead used their platform to take stands for racial and social justice. One of the subtle lessons of the series’ historical survey is that standing for what’s right is almost always an in-the-moment risk. This reality prompts a question central to Christian discipleship: will we love—that is, speak for—our neighbors as ourselves, even when it may cost us something?
This question of neighbor love is at the center of Christian ethics. Jesus made it clear that the entirety of God’s law rests on the call to love God and love neighbor. The Apostle John emphasizes that the love of neighbor cannot be separated from the love of God. Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan highlights how biblical neighbor love is one that inherently involves cost and risk. Not only does the Samaritan take on a financial cost to care for the injured party, he also risks his reputation in crossing a taboo ethnic barrier. Ultimately, Christ himself uniquely displays the cost of neighbor love, enduring ridicule and injustice in order to lay his life down for the world.
Named after Laura Ingraham of Fox News, who said that James should “shut up and dribble,” the three-part documentary primarily details past NBA players who have voiced calls for fair compensation (Oscar Robertson), anti-racism (Bill Russell), and awareness of police brutality (Craig Hodges), which earned them ridicule and, in some cases, exclusion. The question of risky neighbor love comes into sharp focus when the series turns its gaze to James’ analogue, Michael Jordan. At the high of his popularity in the 1990s, Jordan allegedly retorted, when asked about his lack of social justice advocacy, that “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” implying social stances would be too much of a threat to his bottom line. The documentary rightfully notes that the quote may be apocryphal; at a moment when James could exalt his own efforts at social advocacy and demonize Jordan’s sparse legacy, he thankfully does neither. Instead, Shut Up and Dribble lets the question linger: would we stand for what is right, even when such a stance is a risk?
This question of neighbor love is at the center of Christian ethics.
It is important to note how things have shifted from Jordan’s prime to the present. James is vocal on justice issues at a time when, to a much larger degree than decades prior, public social stances are, in many ways, profitable. Nike, a company that is driven by profits, recently endorsed outspoken quarterback Colin Kaepernick in a bold new advertising campaign. And so risk and cost are the two factors that may well distinguish the biblical love of neighbor from cultural conceptions of charity toward others. Charity, culturally defined, amounts to giving that costs us little beyond what we give, is often tax-deductible, and makes us look good. Neighbor love costs enough to make us think twice.
This changing cultural climate calls for careful introspection for those managing multi-million dollar personal brands and the rest of us ordinary folks. Shut Up and Dribble surveys a past era when loving one’s neighbor through vocal advocacy was costly, while simultaneously being a product of a new era where an athlete like James can create a documentary as both a profitable boost to his brand and a prophetic call for social justice. The muddled marriage of brand management and social advocacy adds an important question to the topic of neighbor love: to what degree is our love of neighbor compelled by optics or righteousness? Again, Shut Up and Dribble echoes a vital discipleship lesson from Jesus, who cautioned his followers against practicing righteousness in front of others simply for public approval. Yet again the litmus test of authentic neighbor love may be the question of risk. Will we love our neighbor as ourselves when it may result in a personal loss or only when it may result in the personal gain of positive optics?
Where a pro athlete may be tempted to “stick to sports”—their orbit of comfort and convenience—the average person faces the similar temptation to stick to self and the problems only in their orbit. Shut Up and Dribble reminds us that Christianity’s call to neighbor love is emphatically straightforward: it is a heart-level imperative that eclipses brand management, self-preservation, and virtue signaling. It invites us to practice a love that risks for others in a way that reflects Christ, who came “to give his life as a ransom for many.”