“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-N.Y.), 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-Conn.) 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’ 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 from 2017 to 2019. In November 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, the 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’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 2019.