Basketball superstar LeBron James has, almost from the beginning of his pro career, focused on community activism. Sometimes his efforts seem as fanciful and ill-thought-out as a game of Uptown Pokies but most of the time, he succeeds in setting an example for the rest of the sports world.

I Promise School New Gym    

Thanks to LeBron James, the I Promise School, a public school in Akron Ohio that is  supported by the LeBron Family Foundation, will receive a $1 million grant for its school gym. Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation will build the new gym at the school

LeBron, an Akron native, made the announcement while visiting St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, his alma mater.  The gym, envisioned as a “safe space” for children, will be used for physical education programs and after-school activities. The Dick’s Sports Matter program is helping us provide even more opportunities. An opportunity to play and learn in a safe place that many don’t have access to. I can’t imagine where my friends and I would be if it weren’t for the coaches and teachers who cared about us and the opportunities we had.”

James didn’t specify details of the grant, such as the cost or when the gym will be built. Akron Public Schools spokesman Mark Williamson said it’s still early. “Once drawings are complete, we will know cost better. But the expectation is that the donation and the partnership will pay for the whole project.”

The announcement was a complete surprise to I Promise students and staff members as well as to the entire Akron school administration

The I Promise School opened last year to third- and fourth graders as a partnership program that puts the LeBron James Family Foundation and Akron Public Schools in collaboration. It targets at-risk children and includes a curriculum that focuses on the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math. There are 240 students in the program.

“I believe the sky is the limit for these kids, and the results we’re seeing are just the beginning,” James said. “Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation believes in the opportunities and values sports provide, and I’ve experienced that at every level. I saw it growing up with my teammates, and I see it with my kids now. The benefits of playing sports can extend to every aspect of your life, and I’m excited we’re able to provide a space for that growth at the I Promise School.”

In addition, the LeBron James Family Foundation gifted the Akron school board with a $330,000 donation to expand the family resource center. The plans include the installation of a laundry room.

WalMart Controversy

While LeBron’s continuing involvement with the I Promise school is something that everyone can get on board with, another partnership between James and Walmart is sparking criticism.

James has a reputation as a sports star who uses his platform to promote the greater good. He’s organized protests against the killing of men of color by police and vigilantes, spoken up against politicians who have expressed racist sentiments and started the I Promise school for at-risk youth. James even owns a film production company that has produced documentaries that encourage athlete activism.

LeBron’s fans have become used to his eagerness to take on causes. James recently  announced that he would be taking on the issue of hunger in the United States, specifically “food insecurity” which affects one in twelve families in the United States.

To this end James announced that he would be partnering with Walmart in an effort to provide food for families experiencing food insecurity. To start the ball rolling, he recorded a video with Walmart CEO Doug McMillon in which he announced that he would be the spokesperson for Walmart’s Fight Hunger/Spark Change campaign. Walmart will use proceeds from certain sales to raise funds for Feeding America, a hunger nonprofit.

“It’s an honor and a privilege for me in my community and what I’m doing here to partner with such a heavy hitter in Walmart,” LeBron said, adding “One out of eight Americans struggle with hunger. And I think one is too many.”

The decision to partner with Walmart irks critics who believe that Walmart is actually part of the problem. WalMart is the single largest employer in the United States and many people blame them for employment policies that actually worsen the situation.

Cyndi Murray, a leader of United for Respect, a nonprofit that focuses on trying to make employers pay a living wage, said  “If Walmart wants to get serious about hunger, they should pay a living wage. Hard stop. Walmart is the largest corporate employer in the US, but over half of the associates are food insecure. Many celebrities partner with America’s largest retailer, but LeBron ain’t going to fix Walmart’s image problem. Paying us a living wage would be a good start.” Murray has worked at WalMart for 15 years.

Michael Blain, another critic, co-directed the film Dear WalMart  which examines the  corporation’s labor practices and finds them despicable. Blain says that he would like to tell LeBron that  “When children go hungry in the United States, it is almost invariably because their parents are not being paid enough to cover housing, food, utilities, and more. In many states, Walmart workers and their families are the leading recipients of public assistance, including food stamps, because Walmart simply does not pay them enough. LeBron, your partnership with Walmart on this issue would be far more effective, and directly help more children, if you also called on Walmart to pay all its hourly employees a living wage, so they don’t have to depend on food banks and nonprofits like Feeding America for food assistance in the first place.”

Roberto Jesus Clack, associate director of the group Warehouse Workers for Justice, says that there’s a racial justice component to the issue as well. “Hundreds of black workers, many of whom are heads of households with children, were recently denied employment because of criminal background checks after Walmart ‘in-sourced’ its workforce at their largest warehouse in the country in Elwood, Illinois.

Walmart not only let down black workers, they contributed to a phenomenon that keeps black workers and their families in poverty. As an athlete who has supported Black Lives Matter and has contributed to the discussion around criminalization of the black community, we hope he will support our call for Walmart to hire back these workers.”

The critics say that by lending his image to WalMart, LeBron allows the corporation to continue with its policies that contribute more to food insecurity in America than almost any other event happening in America today. If LeBron wants to promote his image as “more than an athlete,” the critics say, he should consider where he throws his weight.