In March, legendary Alabama head coach Nick Saban released a video statement about coronavirus precautions. Donning a bright crimson blazer, Saban reminded the Crimson Tide faithful of the COVID-19 social distancing guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and their importance in stopping its spread.
Considering the fact that President Donald Trump won Alabama by a landslide in the 2016 presidential election and that Trump has repeatedly downplayed the severity of the disease, Saban’s statement could be characterized as unexpected, to say the least. But as peculiar as it was given the geography, it was equally as powerful and important. Saban is to the state of Alabama what the pope is to the Vatican. While we may never know the full impact of his statement, it may very well have saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives by raising awareness and urging fans to take the pandemic seriously.
Now, three weeks after George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, responses from other high-profile sports figures to a not-so-new and apparently controversial crisis — namely, police brutality against Black Americans — are proliferating. Like Saban’s message, they will have similarly intangible but lasting effects.
Just last week, LeBron James and multiple other Black celebrities announced that they started a voting rights organization called More Than a Vote, which is specifically designed to encourage Black Americans to register to vote, as well as to inform the public about voter suppression tactics.
Some might consider More Than a Vote just another drop in the bucket — granted, it is unlikely that this new organization will have a noticeable short-term impact or easily identifiable effect on Black voter turnout. But to dismiss this and other Black athlete-led efforts like it springing up across the country as insignificant would be premature. By using their platforms, Black athletes can and do effect subtle yet vitally important change every day. Their power should not be underestimated.
In the first place, Black athletes such as James reach millions of people. James alone has 136 million social media followers across Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. For scale, about 137 million Americans voted in the 2016 presidential election.
Of course, the size of a celebrity’s following is important when trying to effect change, but the demographics of James’ following make his voice particularly powerful. James reaches an audience that is largely not seeking political commentary — a vast portion of his fans are likely less interested in activist LeBron James than they are in four-time NBA MVP award winner LeBron James.
And so, like Saban, James is making millions of his white followers, particularly those who idolize him and follow him solely for his sports career, at least listen. In an age of already stark (and growing) political polarization, high-profile voices such as James’ are invaluable; they are what draw a still-large population of politically apathetic people into the political arena. So while increasing Black voter turnout may be the stated goal, More Than a Vote will almost certainly get white basketball fans the world over to sit with James’ concerns and mull them over.
Additionally, a newfound bravery from Black athlete-activists to venture more deeply into politics would and will make modern anti-systemic racism efforts even more effective. Prior to the announcement of More Than a Vote, James’ political involvement was largely limited to social media posts and an appearance at a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign rally in 2016. His philanthropic projects — including his I Promise School aimed at helping at-risk elementary school children in Akron, Ohio — while valuable and commendable, have only begun to ease the symptoms of systemic racism and have not yet fought the root causes.
While it is the sole responsibility of white Americans to expose and dismantle systemic racism, directly political efforts led by Black athletes will only advance the cause. By identifying and exposing entire systems for their deeply ingrained racial biases, as the More Than a Vote organization plans to do with voting in the United States, high-profile Black sports stars will no longer have to skirt around the root causes of issues plaguing the Black community.
White Americans who have demeaned James for his activism, such as Fox News host Laura Ingraham, know full well just how much political clout James and all high-profile Black athletes hold. Their visceral reactions to Black athletes’ activism are driven by the fear of losing the status quo. I (don’t) regret to inform them that the voices of Black athletes are powerful, and they are only becoming more powerful by the day.
William Cooke covers women’s basketball. Contact him at