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Barack Obama 'Real Proud' of Athletes for Leadership in Social Justice Movement

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistOctober 29, 2020

President Barack Obama looks to Miami Heat forward LeBron James as he welcomes the NBA basketball champion Miami Heat, to the East Room of the White House, Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

President Barack Obama appeared on an episode of LeBron JamesThe Shop: Uninterrupted and said he was proud of how modern athletes have been vocal regarding social issues and racial injustices in 2020. 

HBO Max @hbomax

On this special episode of The Shop: Uninterrupted, LeBron James and Barack Obama talk about the impact that WNBA and NBA players have had on discussions around social justice. Catch the full conversation when #TheShopHBO drops this Friday at 9pm ET, only on HBO Max. https://t.co/rWsnol4sBn

"To see this new generation without fear in speaking their mind, and their conscience, I think you guys are setting the tone for a lot of young people coming up and a lot of other athletes in other leagues," Obama said. "Because we saw what happened in Milwaukee and the NBA players did what they did, WNBA players, we started seeing soccer players, you start seeing NFL players doing stuff, baseball...you guys really showed leadership on this in a way that deserves a lot of credit and made me real proud." 

In the clip, President Obama noted that Black athletes have a history of being advocates for social change, from Jack Johnson and Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Arthur Ashe. 

"And then for a while, there was a suspension of activism," he said. "I think for a time the African American athlete started thinking in terms of contracts, money, shoe deals, etc."

But that has changed in recent years, with athletes like Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid, James and other Black athletes using their platforms to speak on social issues like racial discrimination, police brutality, etc. The movement has also seen support in other sports and countries—in the English Premier League, for instance, teams have taken a knee before games in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, a nod to Kaepernick's gesture from 2016. 

When NBA players were trying to decide collectively how to respond to the Jacob Blake shooting in Wisconsin while they were in the Orlando bubble in August—with some teams contemplating leaving Orlando altogether in protest—it was a conversation with President Obama that gave them direction, per Mike Singer of the Denver Post

Union president Chris Paul and James then offered specific causes the players could rally around.

"[Paul] was the one who said, 'We gotta get our [expletive] up and vote,'" Monte Morris told Singer. "He threw the numbers out of the percentage of guys who hadn't done it. It was eye-opening. I think everyone took it serious and said, 'Yeah, we can't be selfish.'"

That number? Eighty percent. Only 20 percent of NBA players voted in the 2016 election, per the NBPA.

"LeBron was talking about qualified immunity, just saying for a change to happen, we have to stand for something," Morris added. "Us boycotting was a sign to the world and just showed that we're here, we're not just basketball players. We're more than that."

James and Paul were among the players who helped the NBPA negotiate a set of joint social justice commitments with the NBA before players agreed to resume play. The commitments included the establishment of a social justice committee and requiring NBA arenas owned by teams to serve as voting centers for the 2020 general election, where possible.

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