“The athlete activism that we have seen over the past year, and especially its impact on the national discourse on athletes’ rights and their role in influencing change by and large, is deeply encouraging and something we should encourage,” said a Democratic congressional assistant. “It’s powerful when athletes who have been able to play professionally can turn around and help improve the situation for those behind them, especially when we know that the vast majority will not make it into professional sport.”
Democrats have also involved athletes in the party’s efforts to address major systemic inequalities. In March, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, chaired by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (DN.Y.) invited the US women’s national soccer team and political brand Megan Rapinoe to testify before the committee in favor of the Paycheck Fairness Act bill, introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) in January to help reduce the gender pay gap. On the same day, Rapinoe spoke alongside Biden at an event at the White House celebrating Equal Pay Day. At the meeting, the president called the football phenomenon “one of our greatest allies”.
Black athletes in particular have also become key partners in Democrats’ efforts to expand voting rights and challenge state laws designed to restrict access to the voting booth. Before the November election, Obama teamed up with James’ organization More Than A Vote to coordinate voter registration campaigns and enroll electoral workers from low-income and historically black areas. During the first game of the NBA Finals on September 30, the former president stepped in one virtual fan area, sits next to retired NBA stars Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade to promote the work of the organization. Since the election, the group has teamed up with key figures on the left, including Democratic strategist and suffrage activist Stacey Abrams, to challenge new Republican voter ID laws in Georgia, Florida and Arizona.
Although officially non-partisan, More Than A Vote shows in miniature form the increasingly dense network of ties that connects the democratic establishment with sympathetic athletes. The organization is led by a small army of seasoned democratic activists and supported by a Roster of high profile athletes including Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Brittney Griner, the star of the U.S. men’s national soccer team, Jozy Altidore, and Damian Lillard, the guardian of the Portland Trail Blazer. Addisu Demissie, the organization’s executive director, previously served as campaign manager for Booker’s successful Senate run in 2013 and Newsom’s gubernatorial campaign in 2018. Jonae Wartel, vice president of the Advocacy and Elections group, served as regional director for the Democratic National South Committee from 2017-2019 In November 2020, Wartel said goodbye to More Than A Vote to oversee the Democratic election campaign in Georgia.
“Athletes like LeBron want [to partner with] Political experts whose values align with their priorities, ”said Tyler, who served for a time as the DNC’s national press secretary. “When you start an organization to fight voter suppression, you want people involved in these struggles who share your values and know what they’re doing.”
In other words, they want to work with Democrats.
Though athletes helped Democrats score big At the polls in November, the prospect of a long-term political alliance between the two groups remains uncertain. While the Democrats in Washington continue to woo athletes as leaders of Democratic cause, potential fault lines have emerged in the nascent relationship.
Some in the party’s progressive wing fear that the Democrats’ collaboration with high-profile celebrities may go too far, leading the party to prioritize the interests of business elites over those of middle- and low-income voters.
“I think Democrats should be vying for every single vote, whether they’re soccer moms or soccer players,” said Mulholland, Political Director of Data for Progress. “To the extent that athletes can be a medium through which Democrats can connect with voters and the public in a way that is not the traditional medium for political communication, I think that is really useful, but extreme wealthy sports stars shouldn’t be the determining priorities of the Democratic Party. ”
At the same time, not all athletes want to be won over by the Democrats. Although liberal athletes have become a vocal minority among current players, large parts of the sports world remain strictly conservative. During the Trump presidency, numerous high profile athletes spoke out in favor of 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 seamstress Mariano Rivera, who Trump awarded the Medal of Freedom in September 2019.