While my son, Yousef, has a number of heroes in his life, none loom as large (literally and figuratively) as LeBron James. Yousef is constantly practicing LeBron’s moves, can’t stop talking about him even at dinnertime, and even has a tattered poster of the basketball superstar plastered on his wall that he refuses to take down. My son’s devotion to the NBA legend is exactly why James’ sponsorship with McDonald’s is deeply disturbing to me.
I know Yousef’s not alone—millions of kids across the country look up to James as a hero. As he struts his stuff across the court and shows up on commercials online and on TV, they absorb, like the little sponges that they are, all the messages he promotes. So when LeBron holds a McDonald’s burger in his giant hand, his muscles bulging and a charming grin on his face, he’s telling Yousef and all those other kids that McDonald’s food is what a world-class athlete eats.
And these kinds of messages aren’t only coming from LeBron. McDonald’s seeks out sponsorship of prominent athletes and sports associations—spending hundreds of millions of dollars to have it named an “official restaurant” or “partner” of the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, and even the Olympics. For the junk food brand, this money is well spent—making the brand and its food seem healthier than it really is. Athletes like gymnast Gabby Douglas, speedskater Shani Davis, and swimmer Dara Torres are all used by this billion dollar brand to market to children. With the links between junk food marketing and the epidemic of diet-related disease increasing, McDonald’s co-optation of athletes and sports is devastating to kids’ health everywhere.
As the assistant director at Centro Comunitario Juan Diego—a grassroots organization focused on healthcare and other pressing issues in the Latino community of Southside Chicago, Illinois—I see on a daily basis the heartbreaking impact of this kind of marketing. When we visit homes to provide healthcare services, diet-related illnesses like diabetes are one of the most common ailments we encounter. Organizations like mine around the country are working to end the health disparities that affect our communities, and all the while junk-food marketing targeted at our kids exacerbates this crisis.
You see, black and Latino kids get what we call a “double dose” of marketing by McDonald’s: first they’re marketed to as kids and then as people of color.
It’s no secret McDonald’s has led the way in developing the most insidious ways to market its junk food to kids—from Ronald McDonald to Happy Meals to McTeacher’s Nights (yes, that’s a thing)—in order create life-long brand loyalty. And in black and Latino communities, McDonald’s has aggressively sited its stores near schools, exposing kids in our communities to its brand more often. Combine this with McDonald’s exploitation of the celebrity and status of athletes of color like LeBron James and its online “culture” sites like 365Black.com and MeEncanta.com—and its inundation of our communities is complete.
The result of all this targeted marketing? Black and Latino children are getting sicker than white kids when it comes to diet-related diseases like diabetes.
As a mother and a community organizer, I find McDonald’s inundation of marketing targeted at the children in my community completely unacceptable. I feel lucky right now that, despite his love of LeBron James, my son is making good food choices. But I know it’s only a matter of time before all the marketing he’s exposed to is going to start countering the messages that he’s gotten from me since birth. And I worry about how this will affect his health. This is not a level playing field we’re talking about here, folks.
That’s why I’m joining Corporate Accountability International and a coalition of 50 organizations, health researchers, public health advocates, and public officials including the Praxis Project, the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, and the Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition in calling on LeBron James to stand up for children’s health and end his partnership with McDonald’s.
This is James’ chance to be a role model and champion for children’s health. We know he cares about the kids that look up to him. After all, he helped promote Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, extolling the virtues of healthy eating and exercise. But his contract with McDonald’s means he’s actually helping the fast food corporation target the kids who most need him to stand up for their health.
LeBron James needs to do right by my son Yousef and the millions of kids who adore him, and drop his sponsorship, protecting the health of kids everywhere.