By Sean Gregory
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.
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.