On Monday, Hillary Clinton returned to Ohio for the first time since Labor Day. She was campaigning there despite polls that have her trailing Donald Trump by a significant margin; one had her down 5 points in a state won by every presidential victor since John F. Kennedy. The continued political importance of the Buckeye State is in question, however; as the rest of the nation has grown more racially diverse and educated, Ohio has done the opposite. That might have seemed like a recipe for Trump’s success, until now: Clinton has just gained the endorsement of perhaps the most popular man in the state.
“I could not be prouder to have LeBron joining our team,” the Democratic nominee told a rally crowd in Toledo on Monday. LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar, published an op-ed on Sunday night declaring his support for the Democratic nominee. Calling her a “champion for children” and promoting a “message of hope and unity” regarding gun and police violence in African-American neighborhoods, James made an affirmative case for Clinton while taking a couple of implicit shots at Donald Trump. “Only one person running truly understands the struggles of an Akron child born into poverty,” James wrote. “And when I think about the kinds of policies and ideas the kids in my foundation need from our government, the choice is clear. That candidate is Hillary Clinton.”
If you question the importance of an athlete's endorsement for something that isn’t a shoe, car, or soft drink, I get it. However unfair, society tends to always act surprised when jocks string intelligible sentences together, let alone make their political views known. And when sports figures like Terrell Owens and Bobby Knight endorsed Trump, it didn’t make major news. But James — arguably America’s greatest male athlete, and certainly the most business-savvy — has already proven himself to be an influential voice on social change. A four-time NBA Most Valuable Player, James is as deliberate with his words as he is with his pinpoint passes. “Anytime I do something,” he told the gathered press after his team’s practice on Monday, “I always say I like to put it in writing form so it’s not — it can never be interpreted the wrong way.”
The NBA also has the youngest audience of any major American sport, according to Nielsen, and the highest share of black viewers. Taking all that into account, James’s endorsement may help show younger voters of color — a key demographic Clinton is targeting — that the political process is worth their time.
To fully understand why this endorsement is unique, we should first look at why James’s popularity is so transcendent. James has been famous since he was a teenager, ascending from Akron’s basketball courts to NBA stardom at age 18. Now entering his 14th NBA season, he is the league’s most popular player. Last year, he was actually voted as the most loved (and hated) athlete in America — either of which attests to his omnipresence in our pop culture. James is everywhere, from commercials for Kia, Nike, and Sprite to feature films like Trainwreck. He remains the NBA’s top pitchman for good reason.
James’s op-ed evoked his June 2014 letter announcing his return to Cleveland after four years with the Miami Heat. He assured long-suffering fans that he’d work to deliver a championship. After rejoining the Cavaliers, he and teammate Kyrie Irving donned “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts before a game in Brooklyn, a salute to Eric Garner after an NYPD officer killed him with a chokehold. Then, less than a month prior to Trump’s caustic convention address in Cleveland — on the same arena floor where LeBron made his legend, no less — James fulfilled his promise, leading the Cavaliers back from a historic series deficit to their first NBA championship.
It was the first pro title in my sports-crazed hometown in 52 years, a fact that likely makes James the most popular human being in Ohio. Even still, I wouldn’t count on that swaying a significant number of Cavaliers fans to Clinton. A lot of voters who might love cheering on black basketball players are more than eager to vote for Trump’s white-nationalist agenda. The power of James’s recommendation lies in his ability to excite people who voted for Obama — whom James called a friend in his editorial — but aren’t feeling as inspired to back Clinton. James’s support for her may prove to be a cattle prod to liberal voters who care about social justice issues.
Shortly before the Republican National Convention colonized Cleveland in July, James and three other NBA stars began the ceremony for the ESPY Awards with a dramatic response to the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police. “Let’s use this moment as a call to action to all professional athletes to educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence and renounce all violence, and, most importantly, go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them,” James said that night. “We all have to do better.”
Trump’s regressive attitudes about race and policing stand in direct opposition to that “doing better” — something James surely realized well before his endorsement. He has long supported the social justice movement through word and deed. And James clearly sees Clinton, for obvious reasons, as a better ally.
To date, however, that hasn’t dramatically swayed black millennials. Most of them support Clinton now, but FiveThirtyEight’s Farai Chideya recently reported that a significant percentage of young black voters are slow to embrace her candidacy. More of them supported Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary, and more than 20 percent of black Americans aged 18 to 30 do not plan to vote for Clinton (or at all). And as Chideya reports, black turnout could very well swing the election in key states such as Florida, Michigan, North Carolina — and, yes, Ohio.
I can’t say for sure that reaching them was James’s overt purpose here. Like the consumer products to which he lends his name and image, James plainly sees something in all of this for his interests — not money so much as a better future for the young students who benefit from his foundation’s work. “She wants to make sure kids have access to a good education, no matter what zip code they live in,” he wrote.
In that sense, Clinton is a means for James to further his off-court goals for his hometown of Akron and the rest of the greater Cleveland area. As much as we Cavaliers fans believe in LeBron’s ability, he wants every American to believe that Clinton can and will do what she promises — particularly for African-American communities — with the implied demand to pressure her if she doesn’t.
That is no small thing to ask in the wake of another rash of police killings, from Terence Crutcher to Keith Scott to Carnell Snell Jr., in the weeks leading into the final stretch of the campaign. The lack of justice voters of color have seen emerging from these cases has led to a lot of cynicism, and many have removed themselves from the electoral process entirely. It is an understandable reaction, but one that plays into the hands of people like Trump — the enemies of the equality and peace these communities seek. James’s choice to stand with Hillary Clinton is an argument against that loss of faith.