In September of 2019, Gavin Newsom took a seat in a chrome-plated barber’s chair in a barbershop in Los Angeles. To his left, seated in an identical chair, was LeBron James, the 17-time NBA All-Star, sporting a tie-dye baseball hat and a broad smile.
California’s governor had joined James on the set of “The Shop,” the barbershop-inspired talk show that James launched with HBO in 2018. Newsom was there to sign the Fair Pay to Play Act, a landmark piece of legislation allowing college athletes in California to earn money from their personal brand—known in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s parlance as their “name, image, and likeness.” The bill, the first of its kind to reach a governor’s desk in any state, represented a direct rebuke of the NCAA’s official policy on athlete compensation, which prohibits college athletes from entering into corporate sponsorship or licensing deals.
Among longtime observers of the political fight over college sports, Newsom’s choice of venue drew almost as much attention as the legislation itself. Notwithstanding the fact that James never even played in the NCAA before entering the NBA, the hardcourt hero had emerged as an archetypal example of a controversial new figure in the world of sports: the self-styled athlete-activist, who feels equally at home discussing the nuances of voting rights legislation as he does breaking down an opponent’s defense. Since donating to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, James had become an outspoken supporter of Democratic candidates and causes, both on the campaign trail and on the timelines of his 134.6 million followers on Twitter and Instagram.
Democrats, however, have not always been as quick to share the love with James and his peers—a growing group of young athletes increasingly willing to use their public profiles to press on progressive causes in blunt, even combative terms. In 2016, Newsom, then the lieutenant governor of California, stayed silent about San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem, despite having served for seven years as the Democratic mayor of San Francisco. That same year, President Obama publicly equivocated when asked about Kaepnerick’s protest, defending the quarterback’s right to speak out but urging him to consider the pain that his actions might cause military families.
The Democrats’ historically arms-length attitude toward athlete-activists led some commentators to predict that, following Joe Biden’s election in November, sports and politics would “retreat to their own separate corners” after four years of public acrimony between athletes and the Trump presidency.
Instead, more than 100 days into Biden’s term, it’s clear the opposite has happened. In a marked reversal, Democrats in Washington are hailing progressive athletes as key partners in the post-Trump Democratic coalition. Where once Democratic officeholders feared alienating sports fans and moderate voters alike, the rise of the party’s left wing—and its full-throated support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of last year’s George Floyd protests—have changed the political equation. A year and a half after Newsom’s headline-grabbing sit down with James, the political logic on display in that meeting has solidified into something approaching a party-wide strategic maxim: Get the athletes on your side.
Democrats’ evolution is the product of political forces that gained momentum throughout the Trump era and came to a head during the 2020 election. While Donald Trump spent years cozying up to conservative sports fans, owners, coaches and a few high-profile players, a large bloc of mostly Black progressive athletes rose up in protest. In the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd, athletes of color led their teams into the streets to demand far-reaching reforms to address the legacies of systemic racism, in sports and beyond. Since then, reform-minded athletes have turned their attention from protest to the more granular side of politics, using their outsized public platforms to promote voter registration and mobilize traditionally low-turnout voters. In Georgia, the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream took the historic step of collectively endorsing Democratic Senate candidate Raphael Warnock against the team’s part-owner, Kelly Loeffler, ultimately helping to deliver the Senate to the Democrats.
“When you actually get to look at the political worth of someone like LeBron James and his bajillion social media followers, and what it means when he says ‘I’m going to get people to register to vote,’ that matters,” said Dr. Amy Bass, a professor of Sport Studies at Manhattanville College. “That’s an awakening.”
Now in control of the White House and Congress, Democrats are testing out new strategies to harness athletes’ political influence into a more durable political coalition. In Congress, Democrats are introducing more aggressive legislation to expand the rights of college athletes. In the White House, the Biden administration is recruiting athletes to serve as spokespeople for some of its key legislative priorities, including voting rights protections and equal pay. At both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, Democrats are beginning to treat outspoken athletes not as a political liability but as a valued—and electorally valuable—Democratic constituency.
“I think what we have seen—and this really is unprecedented—is athletes emerging as a political bloc, and as a voting bloc, that matters,” said Bass. “You know, we’ve talked about hockey moms in the past, we’ve talked about soccer moms in the past—well, now we’re just talking about the athletes.”
Historically, if athletes waded into mainstream politics at all, they did so after they had retired—think New York Knicks star Bill Bradley’s 18-year stint in the Senate, or U.S. Olympian Ralph Metcalfe’s four terms as a U.S. Representative from Illinois between 1971 and 1979. Even before the Trump era, active players who did try to influence Washington from the sidelines faced harsh public backlash and, in some cases, career-altering consequences. In 1996, Denver Nuggets point guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the National Anthem, calling the American flag a “symbol of oppression” and arguing that his Muslim faith precluded him from supporting it. The NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf for a game, and he has since said that the public backlash made it difficult for him to stay in the league.
Left-leaning athletes have not been the only ones to face blowback for their protests. In 2011, following the Boston Bruins’ Stanley Cup victory, Boston’s goalkeeper Tim Thomas refused to visit Obama’s White House, citing his concern that “the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People.” The subsequent conflict within the Bruins organization over Thomas’s protest ultimately led the goalkeeper to skipping the following season, and he retired from hockey for good in 2014.
In addition to pressure from leagues and fans, political leaders from both parties have also sought to use the power of the state to punish athletes who waded into politics, particularly if those athletes were Black. During the Johnson administration, the FBI opened a file on NBA legend and outspoken civil rights activist Bill Russell, calling him “an arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for white children.” In 1967, Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, publicly condemned a group of Black football players at San Diego State College who threatened to boycott and offered to surround the college’s stadium with California National Guardsmen to help quell unrest if the game went forward.
But not until Donald Trump did a sitting president make public denunciations of politically outspoken athletes a prominent part of the White House’s messaging strategy. Like many of the former president’s preferred tactics, his relentless attacks on activist-athletes also triggered a backlashgivin the outspoken athletes a clear political target and rallying the Democratic base behind them. At the same time, Democratic officeholders saw an opening to side with the athletes in the party’s fight against the president. Advocates say this partnership was strengthened after the police murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, when a tidal wave of athlete-led activism made the benefits of closer cooperation with athletes impossible for Democrats to ignore.
“I think athletes have always had potential political power, and from time to time they’ve used it—even back during the Civil Rights Movement—to speak out and do what they can to help influence legislation and public opinion,” said Ramogi Huma, a former college football player at UCLA and the founder and executive director of the National College Players Association, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of college athletes. “Overall, it’s been sporadic, up until George Floyd. I think that was a big trigger … [Now] there are athletes who are meeting with lawmakers, making their wishes known and receiving positive responses.”
Two particular events following Floyd’s murder brought athletes’ political value to the fore. The first began on August 4, when members of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream took the court for a game against the Phoenix Mercury wearing black warm-up shirts endorsing Warnock, the Black minister who occupied the pulpit at Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The move was a clear rebuke of Loeffler, the Trump-aligned senator from Georgia who owned a minority stake in the Dream franchise. In late July, Loeffler had set herself on a political collision course with the Dream’s players when she publicly denounced the Black Lives Matter movement in an open letter to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, accusing the movement of “promot[ing] violence and destruction across the country.” In a series of closed-door meetings and private discussions, the players decided on a response. Rather than attack Loeffler head-on, they would challenge her where it mattered most: at the ballot box.
The impact of the team’s sartorial endorsement was immediate. One of several Democrats in the open primary to succeed Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned for health reasons, Warnock was polling in the single digits. In the days following the Dream players’ statement, Warnock’s campaign raised over $236,000 and gained more than 3,000 individual grassroots donors. In a poll conducted the week after the endorsement, Warnock climbed five points, from 9 percent to 14 percent, and by the beginning of October, he was polling at nearly 30 percent. The team continued to campaign for Warnock through to his victory in the January runoff, showing their support in interviews and on social media.
The success of the Dream’s campaign underscored a clear strategic lesson for Democrats: To mobilize traditionally low-turnout voters, first win over the athletes who can make inroads with those voters.
“[Georgia] was a wake-up call to a lot of folks, because you did see the course and the trajectory of that race change immediately after [the Dream’s] collective action,” said Michael Tyler, the chief communications officer at More Than a Vote, the nonpartisan voting-rights organization founded by LeBron James and businessman Maverick Carter in August of 2020. “It’s why you see increasing calls around ‘shut up and dribble,’ but it’s also why you see a lot of folks on the left welcome the fact that athletes are speaking up and speaking out.”
The second breakthrough came just three weeks after the Dream’s endorsement, when a series of player-led wildcat strikes in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, brought four professional sports leagues—the WNBA, NBA, MLB and MLS—to a temporary standstill.
Although in any other year such an unwelcome disruption to the sports season might have posed a political liability, the work stoppages, coming in the midst of a broader public reckoning with the legacies of anti-Black racism—as well as an already disrupted sports season due to the pandemic—instead presented Democrats with a political opportunity. According to a poll conducted by the progressive Data for Progress, 48 percent of all voters—and 78 percent of Democrats—supported the NBA players’ decision to strike, while only 38 percent of all voters and 18 percent of Democrats opposed it. Biden immediately tweeted his support for the players. Behind the scenes, a group of players led by James organized a conference call with Obama, who counseled them to end the popular strike in exchange for concessions from the league, including converting NBA arenas into polling locations for the presidential election and establishing a social justice coalition within the league that would include players, coaches and state governors.
Taken together, the Dream’s campaign and the work stoppage provided dramatic support for an argument that some athletes and their supporters have been making for decades: that athletes’ core political demands—for greater control over their labor value, more equal treatment of female athletes, and expanded opportunities for people of color to hold positions of power within the leagues—fit naturally within the Democratic Party’s broader political goals.
For Democrats trying to carve out a new and enduring identity for the party in the post-Trump era, this argument continues to prove both morally and politically compelling. Aside from their prodigious athletic talents and, in some cases, jaw-droppingly large salaries, professional athletes look a lot like the voting bloc that Democrats hope will sustain the party through the twenty-first century: ambitious workers from diverse backgrounds who, despite traditionally low levels of electoral engagement, are slowly realizing their political influence—both at the ballot box and in the streets.
“Maybe athletes’ rights aren’t the heart of the Democratic Party’s agenda, but maybe worker power is, and empowering the middle class—something that Joe Biden talks about all the time—is at the core of our party’s goals,” said Marcela Mulholland, the political director of Data for Progress. “[These issues] playing out in professional sports are just one manifestation of a bigger problem that Democrats very much are—and should be—focused on addressing.”
Now in control of both Congress and the White House for the first time since 2010—thanks, in part, to the support of prominent athletes—Democrats in Washington are beginning to repay the favor, both by staking out more aggressive stances on legislation to expand athletes’ rights and by formally bringing professional athletes into the political fold on key social justice issues like equal pay and voting rights.
No issue has benefited more from this boost than the effort to reform the NCAA. For years, college athletes and their supporters have been calling attention to the gross inequity of the NCAA’s business model, which generates millions of dollars in revenue for schools and league executives while depriving the people who produce that revenue—mostly Black players, many from very low-income backgrounds—of any stake in it. In the past year, though, lawmakers across the country—including some Republicans—have warmed to proposals to reform that model. Since Newsom sat down with James to sign the Fair Pay to Play Act into law in 2019, lawmakers in six other states—Florida, Colorado, Nebraska, New Jersey, Arizona, and Michigan—have passed laws giving college athletes greater control over revenue from the use of their names, images or likenesses, and lawmakers in least half a dozen other states—including Mississippi, Iowa, New York, Maryland, Alabama and New Mexico—are currently considering similar pieces of legislation.
In December of 2020, a group of senators led by Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the College Athlete Bill of Rights, a sweeping proposal to give college athletes a share of the NCAA’s profits, recognize their collective-bargaining rights, and expand their access to healthcare and other benefits. In February of this year, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Rep. Lori Trahan (D-MA) introduced a more targeted bill, the College Athlete Economic Freedom Act in Congress, which would create a federal name-image-likenesses law to preempt the patchwork of state regulations.
“The NCAA was created over a century ago with the charge of keeping college athletes healthy and safe, but they’ve failed generations of young men and women when it comes to that most basic of responsibilities,” said Booker in a statement to POLITICO. “Through every step of this process, I’ve been looking for guidance and leadership from those closest to these issues, which includes, first and foremost, the college athletes themselves.”
Although the states’ rapid movement on the NIL issue has put pressure on Congress to pass a federal standard, advocates say they are witnessing a new willingness on the part of Democratic lawmakers to engage directly with athletes.
“We’ve been advocates [for NCAA reform] for a long time, [and] we tried to make progress in Congress for almost 20 years with no luck,” said Huma. “There have been passionate individuals in Congress who we’re grateful for, but now you see some of those individuals becoming even more active by having talks [with athletes] and introducing legislation.”
While reaching out to athletes in private, Democrats have also made prominent athletes the public face of their campaign in support of NCAA reform. Murphy, the co-sponsor of the College Athlete Economic Free Act, has joined forces with Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green to publicly make the case for NCAA reform, first in an op-ed for ESPN and more recently in a joint interview with the Washington Post.
According to Democratic staffers, Democrats on Capitol Hill are increasingly coming to understand the political benefits of publicly leveraging athletes’ support.
“The athlete activism we’ve seen over the past year and, more importantly, its impact on the national discourse about athlete rights and their role in affecting change broadly is deeply encouraging and something we should promote,” said one Democratic congressional aide. “It’s powerful when athletes who were able to play professionally can turn around and help make things better for those behind them, particularly when we know that the vast majority won’t make it into professional sports.”
Democrats have also involved athletes in the party’s efforts to address broader systemic inequalities. In March, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, chaired by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), invited U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team star and political firebrand Megan Rapinoe to testify before the committee in favor of the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill introduced in January by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) aimed at narrowing the gender pay gap. That same day, Rapinoe spoke beside Biden at a White House event celebrating Equal Pay Day. At the gathering, the president called the soccer phenom “one of our greatest allies.”
Black athletes in particular have also become key partners in Democrats’ effort to expand voting rights and challenge state laws designed to restrict access to the voting booth. Before the November Election, Obama joined forces with James’s organization, More Than A Vote, to coordinate voter registration drives and enroll poll workers from low-income and historically Black neighborhoods. During Game 1 of the NBA Finals on September 30, the former president made an appearance in a virtual fan section, seated next to retired NBA stars Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade, to promote the organization’s work. Since the election, the group has teamed up with key figures on the left, including Democratic strategist and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, to challenge new Republican-backed voter ID laws in Georgia, Florida and Arizona.
Though officially nonpartisan, More Than A Vote illustrates in miniature the increasingly dense network of ties that connects the Democratic establishment with sympathetic athletes. The organization is run by a small army of seasoned Democratic operatives and is backed by a roster of high-profile athletes, including Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner, U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team forward Jozy Altidore and Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard. Addisu Demissie, the organization’s executive director, previously served as the campaign manager for Booker’s successful Senate run in 2013 and Newsom’s gubernatorial campaign in 2018. Jonae Wartel, the group’s vice president for advocacy and elections, worked as the southern regional director for the Democratic National Committee between 2017 and 2019. In November of 2020, Wartel took a leave of absence from More Than A Vote to oversee the Democrats’ campaign in Georgia’s runoff election.
“Athletes like LeBron want [to partner with] political experts who have values that align with their priorities,” said Tyler, who worked for a stint as the DNC’s national press secretary. “If you’re launching an organization that’s committed to combating voter suppression, you want people engaged in those fights who share your values and know what they’re doing.”
In other words, they want to partner with Democrats.
Although athletes helped Democrats score big at the ballot box in November, the prospect of a long-term political alliance between the two groups remains uncertain. Even as Democrats in Washington continue to court athletes as spokespeople for Democratic causes, potential fault lines in the nascent relationship have begun to emerge.
Some in the progressive wing of the party worry that Democrats’ cooperation with high-profile celebrity athletes could go too far, leading the party to prioritize the interest of economic elites over those of middle- and low-income voters.
“I think that Democrats should be vying for every single vote they should get, whether it’s soccer moms or soccer players,” said Mulholland. “To the extent that athletes can be a medium through which Democrats can connect with voters and the public in a way that’s not the traditional medium for political communication, I think that’s really useful, but extremely wealthy sports stars shouldn’t be the defining priorities of the Democratic Party.”
At the same time, not all athletes are eager to be won over by Democrats. Although liberal athletes have emerged as a vocal minority among current players, large portions of the sporting world remain staunchly conservative. During the Trump presidency, numerous high-profile sports figures voiced their support for the former president, including MLB pitcher Clay Buchholz, former NFL quarterback Brett Favre, retired golfer Jack Nicklaus, former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, and former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, whom Trump awarded the Medal of Freedom in September of 2019.
Meanwhile, professional sports’ ownership class has made little effort to hide its preference for Republicans. During the 2020 election cycle, the owners of teams in the six major leagues—NBA, NFL, NHL, WNBA, MLB and NASCAR—donated about $10 million to Republican candidates and causes, roughly five times the amount that they gave to Democrats. Owners’ clear rightward bent raises concerns that progressively inclined athletes might stay out of the political fray for fear of crossing their bosses, and that moderate Democrats might keep progressive athletes at arm’s length for fear of alienating would-be donors.
Most critically, divisions are starting to emerge between Democrats and their activist-athletes partners concerning the rights of transgender athletes. Despite public calls-to-action from prominent liberal athletes like Rapinoe and former NFL linebacker R.K. Russell, Democrats in Washington have been tentative at best in in their willingness to take a stand again Republican-backed state laws aimed at preventing transgender athletes from competing against their cisgender peers.
In February, the Biden administration withdrew the government’s support from a federal lawsuit in Connecticut seeking to ban transgender female athletes from participating in girls’ high school sports, but since then, the White House and congressional Democrats have remained largely mum on the issue. In the meantime, the Equality Act, Democrats’ signature legislative effort to ban discrimination against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity, has stalled in the Senate after narrowly passing the House in February.
The debate over transgender athletes’ participation represents a new wrinkle in the political struggle for athletes’ support, as Republicans have begun couching their opposition to transgender rights as a defense of female athletes. While this rhetorical strategy has succeeded in firing up the Republican Party’s socially conservative base, it has failed to rally broad-based support behind the new policies. According to a recent poll from NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist, Republicans and Democrats uniformly oppose restricting transgender athletes’ participation in sports by a margin of nearly two to one.
Nevertheless, the Republican effort to lay claim to the mantle of athletes’ rights poses a real challenge to Democrats, who will have to decide how far they are willing to go—and how much political capital they are willing to spend—to defend athletes who lack the far-reaching public platforms afforded to superstars like James and Rapinoe.
“Ultimately, to fight for equity in sports is going to require people to challenge their assumptions about trans people, trans bodies, and how we conceptualize trans athletes more generally,” said Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU. “If you want to have true justice in the context of athletics—and athletics being an important gateway for the rest of society—then you have to center people who are experiencing the most marginalization.”