NBA star LeBron James emerges as potent political force ahead of US election in November

(Reuters) – Two years after a conservative commentator LeBron James told “to keep quiet and dribble”, the NBA star has become an increasingly influential political force, as issues of racial rights and voter oppression come to the fore come in the November presidential election.

FILE PHOTO: NBA basketball player LeBron James introduces US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during a campaign rally in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, November 6, 2016. REUTERS / Carlos Barria / File Photo

James, an outspoken activist and frequent critic of President Donald Trump, helped form a group that would spend millions of dollars exempting voters in overwhelming Black communities ahead of the Nov. 3 election between Republican Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.

He also helped push the NBA to recognize racial rights issues and the Black Lives Matter movement, including the decision to postpone playoff games this week following a boycott of a player to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake , a Black man, by police in Wisconsin.

That prompted Trump to address the league on Thursday, saying it was “like a political organization.”

James, who campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016, has promised to campaign for Biden this year. Its impact could be critical in 2020, strategists and activists said, given the party’s need to bolster the turnout of Black voters, who saw the first drop in 20 years in 2016.

“LeBron is likely to have a huge impact,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic political strategist and assistant on Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “He has the respect and credibility with the Black community, so he’s a great asset.”

James’ long-running activism on racial rights 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 “keep quiet and dribble.”

This week, James, 35, a 16-time NBA All Star who is considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time, reacted angrily to the shooting at Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, calling for days of civil unrest .

The incident is reminiscent of the murder of police by another Black man, George Floyd, in Minnesota in May that sparked anti-racism demonstrations in many U.S. cities. Blake’s shooting resounded through American professional sports, with leagues displaying games and practices.

“We are asking for TRAFFIC. SICK OF IT, ”tweeted James, whose Los Angeles Lakers are vying for the National Basketball Association title.

James’ leadership on the issue got the attention of the White House, with adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, saying in a television interview on Thursday that he would reach out to James to see where both sides could work together.

Biden said Thursday that he has arranged a call with the NBA after reaching out to discuss the boycotts. He did not elaborate, and a spokesman for his campaign refused to do so.

Familiar voices

Earlier this year, James formed the voting group More Than a Vote along with other leading athletes to combat misinformation and fight what he said was oppression of voters in Black communities.

“LeBron recognized that these athletes are the most trusted members of their communities,” said one person familiar with his thinking. “It’s all about the Black community and protecting and strengthening their suffrage.”

The group will partner with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on a multi-million dollar initiative to recruit young poll workers into black communities in dozens of states, including battlefields such as Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin and Georgia.

A shortage of pollsters to staff personal polls amid concerns over the coronavirus pandemic has led to dramatically fewer polling stations in some states that held primaries earlier this year, including Georgia and Wisconsin.

This led to long queues, hours of waiting and widespread confusion, especially in hard-hit African-American communities that felt the brunt of the cuts.

The group previously worked with teams in Los Angeles and Atlanta to turn stadiums into polling stations, and worked on an effort to help former inmates restore their voting rights in Florida.

Amy Koch, a Republican strategist living in Minneapolis where Floyd’s death sparked the first wave of protests, said James’ vote would have an impact but would carry some risk of alienating suburban voters who have become frustrated and indistinguishable from peaceful protests and violent ones.

“If he can get some of that extra voice out, he’s going to make a difference,” she said. “The difference between him and some other celebrities is that he does not disappear in everything, that he has credibility and he is disciplinary.”

Donna Brazile, a former president of the Democratic National Commission and the campaign manager for presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000, said James and other athletes used their fame to draw attention to the inequalities of the justice system.

“What they say against their fan base is if you want change, you have to vote for change,” she said. “If you want to solve the problem, you have to put people in office who can change the policy.”

Report by Trevor Hunnicutt in New York and Jarrett Renshaw in Pennsylvania; Written by John Whitesides; Edited by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney

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