LeBron James’s Twitter account was unusually active as the results of the presidential election poured in last week. The Los Angeles Lakers star circulated memes mocking Donald Trump for losing the election, and praised Black voters for their record participation. But also noteworthy was his thank–you to the voting-rights champion and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams; former First Lady Michelle Obama; Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
James expressed gratitude to these Black women for assisting his More Than a Vote campaign, an ambitious initiative he started in June to mobilize voters—especially young voters of color. James’s group enlisted athletes and entertainers to promote voting and offered discounted Lyft rides to the polls. It also recruited poll workers, registered voters, and supported grassroots community organizers. The point was to counteract conservatives’ long-term campaign to suppress Black voter turnout. The efforts of James and his collaborators benefited the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, who squeaked to victory in several swing states.
Biden will become the 46th president of the United States, and Kamala Harris will become the first Black woman and the first woman of South Asian descent to serve as vice president, because Black voters overwhelmingly favored the Democratic ticket.
It was fitting that Black athletes were so essential to this victory. President Donald Trump and some sports fans often complain when Black athletes refuse to stick to sports. Yet the election is a clear demonstration of why athletes should use their public platform to advocate for justice and democracy. Trump’s loss doesn’t mean the inequities facing Black Americans will vanish, but Black athletes have positioned themselves to be a prominent voice in addressing the issues that affect their community.
By the time the NBA resumed its season in a coronavirus-free bubble in Florida this summer, the presidential campaign was well under way. Players and coaches consistently sent the message about the importance of voting, either by saying so in public statements or by wearing T-shirts and masks that encouraged people to vote. NBA players, along with the Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce, successfully pushed pro basketball to turn its arenas and practice facilities into voting centers. This accommodation may have proved pivotal in places such as Atlanta and Detroit, where high Black turnout helped gift-wrap Michigan and perhaps Georgia for Biden.
If the Democrats are ultimately able to gain control of the Senate, the party will owe a debt of gratitude to the WNBA for bolstering the party’s prospects in a key Georgia Senate race. WNBA players took a courageous stance against Senator Kelly Loeffler, a Georgia Republican who is a co-owner of the league’s Atlanta Dream. Loeffler sent a letter to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert criticizing players for being outspoken about the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and chastising the league for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the Say Her Name campaign honoring Taylor. Loeffler also said the league should force the players to put the American flag on their jerseys, because it would be a “rallying point for the American people.”
In response, the players publicly threw their support behind one of her Democratic opponents, Reverend Raphael Warnock. At the time, he was polling at 9 percent in a crowded field. When the players wore VOTE WARNOCK T-shirts to their nationally televised games, they helped anoint him as the Democrats’ best hope to pick up Loeffler’s seat. Warnock went on to raise $12.9 million from July to September. Now Loeffler faces Warnock in a runoff election in January.
The biggest blows to Trump’s reelection campaign were delivered by the people he’d wronged. Trump bashed Philadelphia, Detroit, and other majority-Black cities throughout his presidency, and those cities were central to his defeat. Trump also spent a lot of his presidency attacking Black athletes. He questioned James’s intelligence. After several members of the Golden State Warriors expressed their reluctance to visit the White House following their 2017 NBA championship run, the president withdrew the invitation. He called NFL players “sons of bitches” for protesting during the national anthem. (Not all of the athletes he disdained were Black men; he never hosted a female championship team at the White House.)
Getting Trump out of the White House was delicious revenge for the Black athletes whom he had ridiculed for not staying in their place. When asked about the NFL player protests in 2018, Trump told Fox News: “They’re all saying, ‘Oh, it has nothing to do with the flag; it’s the way we’ve been treated. In the meantime, they’re making $15 million a year. Look, I’m all for the athletes. I think it’s great. I love athletics, I love sports, but they shouldn’t get the politics involved.”
Fortunately, athletes rejected his advice. “Black voters came through … again,” James exulted on Twitter on Friday, as Biden’s narrow margins in Pennsylvania grew. “Be proud as hell but do not stop! We must stay organized and keep working. We just tipping off. I promise you I’m here for y’all throughout!”
Now that Black athletes have seen how powerful their voices can be, the stick-to-sports narrative may be gone for good.
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