The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Obama endorses LeBron James’s ‘I Can’t Breathe’ shirt

(Kathy Willens/AP)
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President Obama is a fan of LeBron James and, as it turns out, his clothes, too. In particular, Obama praised James for publicly wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt during pregame warmups. The phrase references the last words of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died while in a police chokehold, and has become a rallying cry for protesters who disagree with a New York grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer.

“You know, I think LeBron did the right thing,” Obama told People magazine two days after James wore the garment at a Dec. 8 Cavaliers-Nets game. Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers also famously were some of the first players to wear the shirt. Obama continued (via People):

“We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness.
“We went through a long stretch there where [with] well-paid athletes the notion was: just be quiet and get your endorsements and don’t make waves.
“LeBron is an example of a young man who has, in his own way and in a respectful way, tried to say, ‘I’m part of this society, too’ and focus attention.
“I’d like to see more athletes do that — not just around this issue, but around a range of issues.”

Until now, Obama has largely refrained from injecting his personal opinion into the growing issue about police violence toward black men, and particularly those who died while unarmed, such as Garner or Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. It is important to note, however, that while Obama stated his opinion on the shirt, he stopped short of endorsing the protests.

It might be Obama’s last statement, however, that has the potential to court the most controversy. The NBA and other pro leagues have not endorsed the shirts, but they have allowed players to wear them, despite the shirts being clear violations of uniform regulations. One must wonder how far the leagues are willing to go, especially in light of Obama’s statement about hoping to see more athletes raise awareness on “a range of issues.” Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell writes on

“Suppose a player next decides to protest an issue that doesn’t resonate as loudly as the Garner case, and wears a shirt or a headband or some other eye-catching outfit in the pregame warmups? Does (NBA Commissioner Adam) Silver grant that player the same courtesy as he did LeBron and Rose and Kobe? What if Clippers center Spencer Hawes, an unabashed Republican, wears an anti-Obama hat during a postgame interview? Is the league okay with that?”

People magazine did not ask that question.