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Keith Strudler: Vote Like Lebron

As we all know from watching this peculiar presidential election, public opinion can change fast. NBA superstar LeBron James can attest to that. A few years ago, when Ohio born and raised James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to play for the Miami Heat, Ohioans treated LeBron like he was the Devil. If the Devil also stole your girlfriend and your parking spot. But only a few years later, after he came home and won the first championship in forever for the hard-luck town, those perceptions shifted a bit. So much that he could probably win the governorship right now. Without even campaigning. But LeBron isn’t a politician, at least not in the traditional sense.

That doesn’t mean he’s averse to being political. In fact, James has made his views clear on a few issues that run outside the lines. For example, he led the league’s ouster of former NBA owner and casual racist Donald Sterling. He’s been a vocal leader of the Black Lives Matter movement, including his participation in a dramatic opening the ESPY award show. He wore an “I Can’t Breath” shirt during warm ups. So he’s no stranger to political movements, even if I’d hardly confuse LeBron James with Muhammed Ali.

So it shouldn’t be all that surprising that last week the greatest basketball player on the planet endorsed Hillary Clinton for President. Given his clear political leanings, anything else would have been bizarre. LeBron isn’t the only athlete who’s taken a stand on the election. On the Hillary side, he’s joined by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jason Collins, and Billy Jean King, among others. Trump’s list is seemingly longer – but in all fairness, also more bizarre. It includes authoritarian Bobby Knight, Mike Tyson, John Daly, Dennis Rodman, and John Rocker. That group’s nuttier than the cast of Celebrity Apprentice, of which Dennis Rodman is an alumni. Trump also got a glorious endorsement from former pitcher Curt Schilling, who makes Sean Hannity look center-right. Shilling’s endorsement came in the way of a blog post, where he both referred to the Democrats as the Soviet ticket and tried to create a moral equivalency between racist rhetoric towards Michelle Obama and people commenting on Bristol Palin. So, while Donald Trump may win the numbers war here, I’d say in the case of athletic endorsements, it’s probably quality over quantity.

It’s obvious that Clinton will gladly accept LeBron’s offer. LeBron may be one of the few Americans that pull on both sides of the aisle – and in Ohio, no less. It’s almost like getting an endorsement from the Pope in Vatican City. Almost.

It’s interesting that so many athletes are now willing to take political stands, including endorsing candidates. That’s different that certain generations past. Michael Jordan famously refused to endorse a Democratic candidate in a North Carolina senate race, where he allegedly said, “Republicans by sneakers, too.” But even Jordan has come around, speaking out – albeit timidly – against North Carolina’s HB2 law. An HBO Real Sports/Marist Poll released last week found that over half of Americans want athletes to be political – to support causes, candidates, and generally use their heft to move public opinion. It’s a statement that athletes are perhaps now officially our nation’s leading public voices – ahead of entertainers, musicians, certainly politicians, who apparently no one likes. And contrary to a common stereotype that athletes are all brawn, no brain, a whole lot of our leading sports figures have lived lives full of meaning and experience; just the kind of stuff that can give one perspective on things like race, socioeconomics, and fairness. You know, the things politicians are supposed to talk about in a debate, when they’re not going off about someone’s weight or marital history. In some ways, athletes are a lot like the rest of us, only more fit and a lot richer. Which means some are thoughtful and smart, others, not so much. In this particular case, LeBron James has proved over time to be reflective, considerate, and pretty darn successful. And he’s navigated an intensely public life since he was about 12 without seriously messing up once. So athlete or not, he’s earned his voice.

Then question is, will LeBron James’s endorsement matter? Will people vote for Hillary Clinton because he says they should? A long time ago, I actually did my dissertation research on the impact of televised sports heroes. And way back then, it seemed people – kids at least – just wanted to copy what their athletes did on the court, and maybe socially. That was about it. I don’t think that’s so true anymore, at least for some people. I think athletes – certain athletes, at least – have moved beyond the baseline into the court of public opinion. Now if LeBron’s reaching undecideds in this contentious blood fest called an election, I can’t say for sure. But in swing state like Ohio, where the Cavs are reigning NBA champs, I’d rather have him on my side than against me. As for Trump, I suppose he’s got Dennis Rodman. Which some would say, is exactly what he deserves.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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