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Why Black Athletes’ Political Activism Matters

Considering this, we wondered how support for Black athletes compared with that for Democratic politicians. In the same survey, we asked respondents to rate various individuals on a feeling thermometer scale from 0-100, where 0 is very cold and 100 is very warm. Feeling thermometer scales are useful when trying to determine the preference and order of respondents’ attitudes. For ease of interpretation, we grouped respondents’ attitudes in three categories: cold attitudes (less than 50 on the scale), warm attitudes (between 51 and 75) and very warm attitudes (greater than 75).

When asked to rate Joe Biden, a majority of all respondents expressed very warm attitudes. However, of those who had not voted in 2016 or 2018, only about one-third expressed very warm attitudes; in fact, a plurality of nonvoters held cold attitudes toward Biden. While we are unable to draw a direct comparison to Kaepernick’s approval rating (which was not measured on a feeling thermometer scale), these findings suggest Kaepernick likely connects with segments of the Black community that Biden does not.

We did, however, ask respondents to rate LeBron James on the same feeling thermometer scale. And we found that, similar to attitudes toward Kaepernick’s activism, a majority of Black people expressed support for James regardless of their recent voting behavior.

Perhaps it is not surprising that less politically engaged voters would be more drawn to a celebrity than a politician. But that’s exactly our point: With support for both Kaepernick and James extending beyond those who are likely voters—unlike support for Biden—we conclude that Black celebrity athletes’ political activism has the potential to connect with voters that politicians such as Biden might not be reaching.

Of course, we cannot definitively say that Kaepernick or James will have a measurable effect on the Black vote this fall. But it is not unthinkable. One study estimated that Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential primary yielded him an additional 1 million voters.

The notion that athletes and celebrities can influence politics is sometimes met with derision. What could a wealthy VIP possibly contribute to the public from such a privileged position in society? This scorn often has been directed at Black sports stars who spotlight racial injustice. Surely, the argument goes, these professional athletes do not encounter the problems about which they complain. But because Black athlete-activists have such massive, captive audiences, they can—and, some would argue, should—use their celebrity platforms to voice the concerns of Black people.

If Biden and the Democrats are truly interested in building enthusiasm and inspiring Black voters to go to the polls in November, they would be wise to embrace Black athletes, such as Kaepernick and James, who are choosing to exercise their political voices.

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