King James and the Spirit of ’68

Could LeBron's political awakening revive activism among athletes?

Does it really matter whether LeBron James endorses Barack Obama for president? And why should anyone care that he recently threw his support—and money—behind the presumptive Democratic nominee’s campaign?

After all, James is 23 years old, plays basketball for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and is one of the stars of the 2008 Olympic hoops team. His face appears frequently on magazine covers and beams from television commercials.

While ubiquitous fame might persuade weak-minded kids (or weaker-minded parents) to shell out $150 for a pair of LeBron’s signature Nikes, does a talented celebrity’s franchise extend so far as to suggest how voters might cast a ballot? In other words, should Americans heed civic lessons from pop-culture superstars as if they’re political experts?

Damn straight, we should. If MSNBC’s Keith “Talking Head” Olbermann can go from talking sports to talking politics, then why can’t LeBron “The King” James go from playing ball to playing politics.

Or, to take this strained analogy one step further, if famous athletes can hawk consumer goods, then maybe they should push politics and candidates with the same attention-generating results. Well, at least, that’s the theory that I’d like to believe while cheering on LeBron for his slam-dunk baptism into the political waters.

It’s all the more admirable that as this year’s Beijing Olympics open—40 years after U.S. sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised black-gloved fists in protests of racism in their homeland at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics—LeBron James is making his first, albeit less controversial, political statement.

Could this be the start of a trend? Are other big-name athletes soon to follow? I sure hope so, and there’s evidence to suggest it is. Last year, LeBron’s former teammate Ira Newble (now a member of the Los Angeles Lakers) passed around a petition among his NBA compatriots asking them to join his campaign against China’s association with genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region.

(James declined, at first, to sign the petition, but later added his name saying he’d educated himself and wanted to help shed light on the awful situation.)

So far this year, however, few professional athletes have jumped into presidential politics, probably based on advice from their agents and coaches to stay far from controversial topics that could cost them endorsements. (Makes you wonder why the bad-boy athletes aren’t as willing to listen to agents and coaches when they’re warned against carrying guns, tipping strippers and driving under the influence?)