By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Etan Thomas emerged from the Washington Wizards' locker room at Verizon Center this week looking like a walking campaign advertisement. He wore a black T-shirt adorned with a picture of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and the words "Yes We Can" in bright gold lettering.
It's not uncommon for the Wizards center to publicly express his political leanings. An outspoken opponent of the Iraq war since it began, Thomas has participated in several Democratic campaign events, including attending the party's convention in Denver and teaming with Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean at voter registration rallies in Northern Virginia.
But Thomas, 30, has discovered that during this presidential campaign he is one of several NBA players taking an active role. "Everybody knows where I stand, but it's great to see other players involved," Thomas said. "The guys I admire did that. The Jim Browns, the Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]s, the Muhammad Alis. They used their position as a platform. Now, a lot of different athletes are coming out."
This presidential election, featuring an African American nominee for president and a female nominee for vice president, has prompted even NBA players, known for their political apathy in recent years, to take interest.
"Guys are paying attention to what's going on in the world, and I think that many players realize the impact our voice can have," said Los Angeles Clippers point guard Baron Davis, an Obama supporter, who recently spoke at a "Women for Obama" rally in Los Angeles. "We should take it upon ourselves to educate and inspire others about issues that are important to us. We shouldn't wait for someone else to stand up and try to make a difference."
Support for Obama is far from unanimous around the league. Spencer Hawes, a second-year center with the Sacramento Kings, created a Facebook page for fans of conservative pundit Ann Coulter and had a bumper sticker on his car in high school that read, "God Bless George W. Bush." Hawes, 20, said he is backing Republican nominee John McCain and is excited about voting for president for the first time. Hawes hasn't campaigned on behalf of McCain but said, "but I'd be ready and willing if I was asked."
But most players interviewed for this story said they were backing Obama.
Los Angeles Lakers guard Derek Fisher and New York Knicks point guard Chris Duhon were also at the Democratic convention in Denver. Duhon, a teammate of Obama personal aide Reggie Love at Duke, attended the final presidential debate between Obama and McCain at Hofstra University last week.
New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul encouraged people to vote in a Web commercial for the Obama campaign-sponsored Web site. Detroit Pistons guard Chauncey Billups introduced Obama at a rally in Michigan. Greg Oden, Jerryd Bayless and Channing Frye of the Portland Trail Blazers spoke on behalf of Obama at a voter registration drive at Portland State University.
Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James donated $20,000 to the Democratic White House Victory Fund, a joint committee set up by Obama and the Democratic Party for the presidential race, and gave the Illinois senator an autographed basketball when both appeared on CBS's "Late Night With David Letterman" in September. James recently participated in a voter registration rally in Cleveland with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and told an adoring crowd, "All of us want change."
Although the NBA is predominantly African American, the Wizards' Thomas said the enthusiasm for Obama has less to do with him being black than with his views on the economy, health care and education. Obama "is . . . laying out the plans. He's not talking around the issues. There is a sense that things will be different."
Political activism among athletes today doesn't come close to that of the 1960s and 1970s, but it does contrast with the past 20 years, when athletes often chose not to take a stand or share their beliefs for fear of ridicule or financial hits.
In the early 1990s, Michael Jordan famously refused to publicly support Harvey Gantt, a black Democrat running against Republican Jesse Helms in a North Carolina U.S. Senate race, saying, "Republicans buy sneakers, too." Jordan eventually donated money to Gantt, and also contributed to the presidential campaigns of Bill Bradley in 2000 and Obama.
Steve Nash sparked a minor controversy when he showed up at the 2003 All-Star Game in Atlanta wearing a T-shirt that read, "No War. Shoot for Peace." Orlando Magic center Adonal Foyle, another critic of the Iraq war, said athletes shouldn't be afraid to share their political views.
"There is some risk, there is no doubt about that, but I think that's part of the responsibility," said Foyle, 33, who in 2001 founded Democracy Matters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that works on campaign finance reform. "Saying what you think is going to come with a certain amount of people being mad at you, but so what? People are mad at you when you beat them at a basketball game anyway. They boo you anyway. Really, what has changed? I think it all depends on how you do it."
Foyle, a native of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean, recently became a U.S. citizen and plans to vote for Obama. "This is truly a remarkable time to be involved in politics. I feel absolutely honored and special to be voting at this particular juncture," Foyle said.
The political climate has led to debates in locker rooms around the league. "Those are the hot topics because that's where all the news is from," Hawes, who is white, said, adding that he takes some heat from teammates for his views. "You see the 'Saturday Night Live' sketches. It's not really just politics right now. It's become intertwined with pop culture as a whole."
However, some players still refuse to get excited about the election. "People get sour-faced when you talk about politics and voting," said Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas, adding that he doesn't plan to vote.
Arenas, who is slated to earn $14.5 million this season after signing a six-year, $111 million contract this past summer to remain with the Wizards, said he is fearful that both candidates will raise his taxes.
"The first Bush said he wasn't going to tax nobody," Arenas said. "It doesn't really matter who the president is. They say whatever they need to say to get in office."