by Michael Mathes
New Cleveland resident Steven Catudal was eager to register to vote in his adopted state of Ohio. He found an unlikely ally to thank for smoothing that process during a turbulent election year: basketball superstar LeBron James.
The NBA legend has emerged as the most high-profile promoter of US civic engagement in all of sports.
And his encouragement of Americans — particularly in minority communities — to express their power through voting has the potential to impact November’s election.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Catudal, a 23-year-old business consultant, told AFP after filling out voter registration and change-of-address forms at one of several booths set up in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ arena.
“These pro athletes are role models to people all around the US and the world,” he said, and “they’re leading by example” in important get-out-the-vote efforts.
“To have those franchises, those athletes, going out and pushing younger voters and everyone to come vote, and kind of help shape the future of… the United States is really big.”
The event in Cleveland, supported by government and civic groups, registered more than 700 people in person or online and proved a highlight of National Voter Registration Day last Tuesday.
LeBron’s home state Ohio is a critical bellwether; President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden will be squaring off there in their first presidential debate Tuesday, in Cleveland.
– ‘Shut up and dribble’ –
In 2019 James was told by one conservative Fox host to “shut up and dribble.”
Instead, the Los Angeles Lakers power forward and four-time season MVP is trumpeting his get-out-the-vote message from the rooftops.
James has teamed up with New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg and others to raise $20 million to pay the outstanding debts of thousands of Florida felons so they can vote.
A group James co-founded, More Than a Vote, is helping convert sports venues — like Cleveland’s arena, where James once played for the Cavaliers — into voting sites, addressing the shortage in poll workers and fighting voter suppression.
“Nothing is going to change if you guys sit on the sidelines,” James says in a television spot aired by the group during recent NBA playoff games.
– Trump’s concerns ‘aren’t valid’ –
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican who grew up in James’s hometown Akron, is on More Than a Vote’s steering committee and expressed pride in the group’s non-partisan engagement.
LaRose is one of the few Republicans willing to challenge Trump’s repeated accusations, without evidence, that Democrats are “rigging the election” through mail-in voting.
“The president’s concerns that he’s raised aren’t valid here in Ohio,” LaRose told AFP.
Voting by mail and broadening access to the ballot box “is not a partisan issue in my eyes,” said LaRose, who led efforts in Ohio to implement online voter registration.
For James and fellow NBA stars like Larry Nance Jr. of the Cavaliers, bringing the voter empowerment message to minority communities is especially important.
“Support Black voters, be a poll worker, and get in this election for real,” James tweeted last week.
– ‘We need that’ –
He also uses his star power to address racial injustice and the challenges for black women, weighing in after a grand jury on Wednesday declined to charge officers in the deadly police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.
“You can’t turn a blind eye to that,” he told reporters Thursday.
African-American Attwyne Robinson, 60, said it was “great” that athletes were prioritizing voter registration during a bitterly contested election supercharged by Trump’s rhetoric.
“Cleveland needs this, because a lot of people don’t know what’s going on,” said Robinson, a cook, after filling out voter forms.
For years sports leagues have promoted get-out-the-vote efforts.
“For our players as a league, as a whole, it’s become a central tenet,” Cavaliers chief executive officer Len Komoroski said.
But with the pandemic cramping voter registration drives normally carried out during ticketed events, the current efforts are “more in the spotlight,” he added.
James now plays ball in LA, but his civic engagement shines in Akron.
His family foundation built the I Promise public elementary school and a building at the University of Akron’s college of education, which bears his name.
“The fact that he is doing things to get people out to vote, that he’s encouraging people, and he’s such an icon in Akron, I think it’s great,” said Master’s student and marching band baton twirler Amy Mellinger.
“People listen to him here,” the 25-year-old added. “We need that.” | Agence France-Presse