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of the year
Illustration by Victoria Cassinova for TIME
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At 11:58 a.m. on June 8, LeBron James logged on to a video call from the living room of his Los Angeles–area home. As the clock hit noon, James, who abhors tardiness, took command of a virtual meeting that included more than 20 top athletes, entertainers and political pros. He set a serious tone: across the country, people were filling the streets to march against racial injustice and demand systemic change. What could this group do about it?
James had the answer, and it wasn’t another celebrity PSA: an all-star coalition committed to pushing back against the suppression of Black voters. To lay out the severity of the problem, Michigan secretary of state Jocelyn Benson detailed how disinformation campaigns attempt to lower turnout. Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green expressed discomfort about encouraging others to be politically engaged since he himself had not voted since 2008. But such stories, he was assured, were exactly the point. Green’s experience could inspire others to vote for the first time, or return to the polls as he would. On a follow-up call 10 days later, comedian Kevin Hart asked if they would all be receiving Black Panther berets.
Portrait by Tyler Gordon for TIME
Hart was joking, but he spoke to the urgency with which James was approaching the cause. The moment required a movement, and LeBron James, the greatest basketball player of his generation—arguably of any generation—and one of the most prominent Black men in the world, would lead the way. “That was my initial call to action,” James tells TIME in late November, “to let people know what my mission was, what my passion was, and how we were going to deliver.”
On June 23, James launched the nonprofit More Than a Vote, with a single-minded focus on getting more people to the polls. The group pushed for sports arenas to be used as polling places on the grounds that they could allow for social distancing while accommodating large numbers of voters. In the hope of keeping lines moving and locations open, they recruited young people to replace older poll workers who were sidelined by fears of COVID-19. By August, nearly 50 athletes, entertainers and media figures—including WNBA player and ESPN host Chiney Ogwumike and NFL stars Patrick Mahomes and Odell Beckham Jr.—had signed on as founding members. The organization partnered with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund—and by Election Day, less than five months after its founding, had helped recruit more than 40,000 election workers nationally and in places like Atlanta, Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia, all cities that helped deliver key swing states to Joe Biden.
At every step, James supported the work by recruiting fellow athletes to the cause, promoting More Than a Vote to his more than 48 million followers on Twitter and turning himself into a billboard by wearing a Vote or Die! shirt to a practice. It was the highest-profile example of the surge in activism that spread across the sports world in 2020. Spurred by a pandemic that has disproportionately taken the lives and livelihoods of people of color and by police killings of unarmed Black Americans, everyone from college athletes to tennis stars to race-car drivers to hockey players did things like speak out against racial injustice, join marches and even lead the temporary shutdowns of major sporting events. Indeed, the NBA playoffs might well have never finished had James not decided to stay in the league’s Disney World “bubble” and see the season through.
“Not only is he the best player, but he has the most powerful voice,” says tennis champion Naomi Osaka. During her run to the U.S. Open title in September, she wore masks honoring seven Black Americans killed in recent years, including Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Breonna Taylor.
After nearly two decades in the NBA, James has fully embraced that his talent on the court is a means to achieving something greater off it. And this year, more than in any before it, he showed why he is unrivaled in both. Despite misgivings, James played on in the bubble and led the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA championship—his first with the team and fourth overall. By staying, James increased his leverage and influence, and got deep-pocketed owners, fellow athletes and fans the world over engaged directly with democracy. And through it all, he spoke personally to the anguish of Black Americans, channeling pain and outrage into a plan of action.
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More Than a Vote did not endorse a political candidate. But James believes the result of his organization’s work in the election—Donald Trump’s removal from office—will ease some of the tumult of the past four years. “At the end of the day, when you’re going through adversity or you’re going through anything in life, the one person that you believe you can count on is the person that’s in the captain’s seat,” says James, who knows from occupying his team’s top chair. “He can always keep everything calm, make people feel like no matter what we’re going through, we’re going to make it through. And I believe, as Americans, we didn’t feel that over the last four years. We always felt like we were in the ocean, and the waves are crashing against our boat, and the thunderstorms are coming down. So I believe that our people just got tired of not feeling a sense of calmness, and they went out and used their right to vote.”
Despite all this effort, a large swath of America would still prefer that James just “shut up and dribble,” as a pundit once put it. When asked if he had anything to say to such critics, he chuckles. “You hear my laugh?” James says. “There it is. That is my direct message to them.”
This wave of activism crested on Aug. 26, when the Milwaukee Bucks declined to take the floor three days after police in Kenosha, Wis., shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back. Even in a year that shattered all norms, a wildcat strike—in the playoffs—seemed unfathomable. Then the WNBA, NHL, pro tennis, and teams in Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer all took a pause too. Sports, with the support of most team owners and league officials, had been forced to a halt in support of Black lives. “I respect the hell out of them for doing that,” John Carlos, the American sprinter who raised his fist along with Tommie Smith on the medals stand at the 1968 Olympics, told TIME on the evening of the Bucks’ walkout. “Because you have to squeeze the toothpaste tube to get people to respond.”
Momentum had been building all summer. When the WNBA started its delayed season in July, the players publicly dedicated it to Taylor, a Louisville, Ky., medical worker killed by police in a botched raid of her home. After Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, called Black Lives Matter “divisive” and “Marxist” in July, many players started wearing shirts backing her opponent, the Rev. Raphael Warnock. The month before, NASCAR had announced a formal ban on Confederate flags at its events and properties after Bubba Wallace, the lone Black driver in the top series, spoke out about the discomfort the flags caused. The night the Bucks took their stand, Osaka, who marched in Minneapolis following George Floyd’s death, withdrew from the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open in similar protest. Rather than make her forfeit, the tournament suspended play in solidarity.
Clockwise from top left: F1’s Lewis Hamilton kneels; Naomi Osaka honors Black victims of violence at the U.S. Open; Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford raises his fist to call for justice; the WNBA’s Sue Bird urges fans to voteClockwise from top left: Bryn Lennon—Pool/AP; Al Bello—Getty Images; Clive Brunskill—Pool/Reuters; Ned Dishman—NBAE/Getty Images
Athletes around the world took up the mantle. The 23-year-old Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford successfully lobbied the U.K. government to provide $220 million in benefits to support families in need over the next year. Lewis Hamilton, the Formula 1 superstar and the sport’s only Black driver, began kneeling before races wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt and helped launch an effort to create opportunities for Black drivers and engineers in motorsports.
Taken together, the demands and demonstrations marked a new phase of player empowerment and agency that has been more than a half-century in the making. In 1969, Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals challenged the reserve clause, which could bind players to teams for life. That led to free agency, which gave athletes in team sports significantly more control of their economic destiny. As their star power grew, so did their appeal to marketers. And no athlete bridged those worlds better than Michael Jordan, whose lucrative deals with Nike, McDonald’s and other major brands showed that transcendent sports stars could be their own corporate behemoths—so long, it was thought, as they steered clear of contentious political or social issues.
For years, Jordan’s famous line—“Republicans buy sneakers too”—has been an axiom for athletes who want to capitalize on their celebrity. He had every reason to think that way. Muhammad Ali sacrificed the prime years of his career and became a pariah for refusing to serve in a war he viewed as unjust. Carlos and Smith received death threats after their Black Power salute. In 2016, Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the national anthem to call attention to police brutality; he hasn’t played in the NFL since that season.
It was James, heir to Jordan on the court and in the boardroom, who established a new paradigm, in which commercial clout exists alongside political principle. He remains one of the world’s top pitchmen, endorsing Nike, AT&T, Walmart and other major brands. And he has laid waste to the dated notion that political and social engagement is some sort of distraction for athletes. In 2020, James led the NBA in assists, for the first time in his career, before winning the NBA championship and his fourth Finals MVP award, at age 35. Athletes can now bring their full humanity to their games, insisting that their identities be recognized and rejecting the notion that their athleticism is all that matters.
“When you have somebody of LeBron’s stature setting the tone, it makes it that much easier for everyone to get on board,” says 11-time WNBA all-star Sue Bird, who also won a fourth career league title this season and who came up with the idea of wearing Vote Warnock T-shirts. Hamilton, who won a record-tying seventh F1 championship this season, points to James as a ballast. “When I saw across the pond that another top athlete was also fighting for similar causes,” Hamilton tells TIME, “I knew, O.K., I’m not alone here.”
On the evening of Aug. 26, hours after the Bucks refused to take the court, NBA players and coaches gathered in a ballroom of Disney World’s Coronado Springs Resort to figure out next steps. COVID-19 had shut down the NBA season in March, and the league had restarted in late July in an Orlando bubble that included daily testing and other safety measures. The room was on edge. Players were still processing the horror of what had happened in Kenosha.
James was frustrated. No one, in his mind, was making a compelling case for returning to the floor. With the rest of the Lakers, he walked out of the meeting before it ended. Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, thought he might also leave the bubble—and take the rest of the league with him. “If he had said, ‘What we are doing is too important, and screw the championship,’ I think that would have had a lot of guys saying, ‘Wow, you know, he’s about to give up another f-cking ring, so maybe I should check myself and wonder whether this basketball stuff is really that important,’” she says. “I don’t think we would have played.”
James says he was “very close” to leaving; that night he told his wife and family there was a strong possibility he was headed home. “We were still with our brothers in solidarity, meaning the Milwaukee Bucks,” he says. “It was something that hit home in their backyard. We all understood that. But if we’re going to move forward, what is our plan? At that very moment, I didn’t believe that we, as a collective group of players, had a plan at all. We had taken the stand to sit out. But how are we going to make a difference going forward?”
A conversation between James, players’ union president Chris Paul, a few other key players and Barack Obama helped provide clarity. The former President’s advice: Use your leverage. The next day, James addressed the NBA owners, their faces beamed in on a screen. “He knows how to apply pressure,” says Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, who on Dec. 3 signed her star player to a two-year, $85 million contract extension. James asked the assembled billionaires to join the players in helping more people vote. “LeBron was a calming voice but one that I didn’t view as oppositional,” says NBA commissioner Adam Silver. “I viewed it as ‘All right, everyone, we have certain celebrity and reach that we bring to the table; team owners obviously have enormous resources and their own network of associations. Working together, we can accomplish even more.’”
“There was no other player in that room who could have done that,” says Armond Hill, a veteran NBA assistant coach who helped spark voter-registration efforts among the players, one marker of rising political awareness. More than 95% of players wound up registering for the 2020 election, while just 22% voted in 2016, according to the NBA union.
“I just wanted to reassure that they were giving us their word,” says James, “and I was going to give them our word that we would continue to play on with the season, as long as we had action going on off the floor at the same time.”
Owners pledged to work with local election officials to convert arenas into polling places, establish a social-justice coalition with players and coaches, and provide some playoff advertising space to promote civic engagement. After Obama appeared as a virtual fan during the broadcast of Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Sept. 30 and thanked a group of first-time poll workers, More Than a Vote’s registrations more than doubled—from 12,439 to 26,398—over the next five days.
Nadia Lee, a recent law-school grad living in the Atlanta area, signed on after a tweet from James. She also recruited about 10 friends to staff precincts. From 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Nov. 3, she helped people fill out provisional ballots at a school in Georgia’s DeKalb County. “I did not know I could be a poll worker,” says Lee, “until LeBron told me.”
“In the Black community, we always hear the notion of ‘We want to see change,’” says James. “But we rarely actually go out and try to help and call for action, actually do it. So I can say that my Black people and my Black communities, they actually went out and said not only did they want change, they actually went out and did it.”
Christopher Towler, founder of the Black Voter Project, believes that James’ work predominantly affected Black voters and had a real effect on turnout. “He influenced the outcome of the election,” says Towler, an assistant professor of political science at California State University, Sacramento. “The jury is still out on if he tipped it.”
James’ work with More Than a Vote marks another milestone in his personal evolution. “You want to keep athletics and politics separate,” James said back in June 2008. He did support Obama that year, but it was in 2012, when James posted a picture of himself and his Miami Heat teammates in hooded sweatshirts in honor of Trayvon Martin, that he began to more publicly fuse the two. In 2014, James wore an I Can’t Breathe warm-up shirt before a game in Brooklyn after a New York City grand jury declined to indict an officer who had applied a choke hold to Eric Garner, who had uttered those three words before his death. Still, as recently as July 2017, an article in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, titled “Athletes and/or Activists: LeBron James and Black Lives Matter,” argued that James “wears [the activist] label cautiously.”
That’s no longer the case. Early in his NBA career, he started giving back in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, with an annual charity bike ride. Now, a collage of students and community members from his I Promise School—which opened in the city in 2018 and offers free busing, meals, uniforms, bikes and other resources outside the classroom, like mental-health support—flanks James on a Wheaties box. In July, James’ foundation opened the I Promise Village, a transitional housing complex for school families in need, like LaTasha Clark’s. A home health aide, Clark fell behind on bills after losing work hours because of the pandemic, and she and her two children were evicted from their house. They moved into the I Promise Village in August, as Clark’s daughter started third grade at the school.
“He has opened up doors that I never thought would have been opened for me,” says Clark, fighting tears. “I’m just a regular, single Black mother trying to make her way. Just being here, I’ve met a lot of different people that have supported me more than anyone I have ever known in my life.” The next step for I Promise is an initiative centered on job training and financial literacy.
This work changes lives. It also builds trust. “There is an attachment through racial identity, for African Americans especially, when they see even the most privileged famous athletes still understand and relate to the Black community like anyone else would,” says the Black Voter Project’s Towler. “LeBron James can fill a tremendous gap in future mobilization efforts and really empower Black people in ways politicians since Obama haven’t been able to.”
James celebrates his fourth NBA title on Oct. 11 in Orlando; he’s the first player to win the Finals MVP award for three different teamsDouglas P. DeFelice—Getty Images
As he embarks on his 18th NBA season this winter following the shortest off-season in North American major pro team sports history—the 2020–21 schedule tips off on Dec. 22; the Lakers clinched the 2020 championship on Oct. 11—James insists his work is just starting. “We feel really good right now,” he says. “But you don’t want to feel great. Because it’s never done.” More Than a Vote is now reminding ex-felons of their voting rights in Georgia and mobilizing young first-time voters for the state’s Jan. 5 runoff election, which could determine control of the U.S. Senate.
“It would never, ever go back to us just playing our respective sports,” says James. “It will never be that way for as long as I’m around. And hopefully I’ve inspired enough athletes that even when I’m gone, that legacy will carry on.” —With reporting by Alejandro de la Garza
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