(Reuters) – Two years after a conservative commentator told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” the NBA star has become an increasingly influential political force as issues of racial justice and voter suppression move to the forefront in the November presidential election.
James, an outspoken activist and frequent critic of President Donald Trump, helped form a group that will spend millions of dollars to battle voter disenfranchisement in predominantly Black communities ahead of the Nov. 3 election between the Republican Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.
He also has helped push the National Basketball Association to recognize racial justice issues and the Black Lives Matter movement, including the decision to postpone playoff games this week after a player boycott to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by police in Wisconsin.
The NBA and its players said on Friday the playoffs would resume after they agreed to have teams that own and control their stadiums turn them into polling places in November to allow for safe in-person voting in areas vulnerable to COVID-19 — an early initiative of James’ group More Than A Vote.
The NBA said it will also form a social justice coalition to work on increasing access to voting and promoting civic engagement.
James, who campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton four years ago, has promised to campaign for Biden this year. Given that Black voter turnout dropped in 2016 for the first time in 20 years, his influence could be critical in 2020, strategists and activists said.
“LeBron is likely to have a huge impact,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic political strategist and aide on Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “He has the respect and the credibility with the Black community, so he’s a tremendous asset.”
James’ longtime activism on racial justice issues and criticism of Trump prompted white Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham in 2018 to tell him and fellow Black NBA star Kevin Durant to “shut up and dribble.”
A 16-time NBA All Star who is considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time, James, 35, reacted angrily this week to the shooting of Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which sparked days of civil unrest.
The shooting reverberated through U.S. professional sports, with leagues postponing games and practices.
The incident recalled the police killing of another Black man, George Floyd, in Minnesota in May that triggered anti-racism demonstrations in many U.S. cities.
“WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT,” tweeted James, whose Los Angeles Lakers are vying for the NBA title.
The playoff postponement prompted Trump to denounce the NBA on Thursday, saying it was “like a political organization.”
White House adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, said in a televised interview that he would reach out to James to see what both sides could work on together, however.
James formed More Than a Vote earlier this year along with other prominent athletes to counter misinformation and fight what he said was voter suppression in Black communities.
“LeBron recognized that these athletes are the most trusted members of their communities,” said a person familiar with his thinking. “It is entirely about the Black community and protecting and strengthening their right to vote.”
The group will collaborate with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on a multimillion-dollar initiative to recruit young poll workers in Black communities in a dozen states, including battlegrounds such as Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin and Georgia.
A shortage of poll workers to staff in-person voting sites amid worries about the coronavirus pandemic led to dramatically fewer polling locations in some states that held primaries earlier this year, including Georgia and Wisconsin.
That led to long lines, hours-long waits and widespread confusion, particularly in hard-hit African-American communities that felt the brunt of the cutbacks.
Amy Koch, a Republican strategist who lives in Minneapolis, where Floyd’s death sparked the first wave of protests, said James’ voice would have an impact but carried some risk of alienating suburban voters who have grown frustrated and are not differentiating between peaceful protests and violent ones.
“If he can get some of that extra vote out, he will make a difference,” she said. “The difference between him and some other celebrities is he doesn’t wade into everything, so he has credibility and he’s disciplined.”
Donna Brazile, a former Democratic National Committee chairwoman and the campaign manager for presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000, said James and other athletes were using their celebrity to draw attention to the inequities of the justice system.
“What they’re saying to their fan base is if you want change, you’re going to have to vote for change,” she said. “If you want to fix the problem, you’re going to have to put people in office who can change the policies.”
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in New York and Jarrett Renshaw in Pennsylvania; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Peter Cooney and Sonya Hepinstall)