Kyle Grillot / The New York Times

After holding off from an official endorsement of any presidential candidate, LeBron James posted in support of Joe Biden after Donald Trump incited a "LeBron James sucks" chant at a rally Monday night.

November 3, 2020

BULKELEY | Weaponizing Sports in the 2020 Presidential Election

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“By the way, I brought back Big Ten football. It was me, and I’m very happy to do it,” President Donald Trump claimed in the first presidential debate in September. 

This year’s presidential race has seen the politicization of sports take on enhanced importance as players and candidates alike try to use the platform to influence the election.

While Trump’s alleged responsibility in reviving the Power-5 conference after it at first canceled the season due to COVID-19 was almost immediately discredited, it was just one notable instance during this election cycle in which high-level sports were used to sway constituents’ allegiances.

“The people of Ohio are very proud of me,” the president said regarding his alleged involvement in the Big Ten season. Of course, Ohio, a key battleground state, is home to Big Ten contender The Ohio State University, whose fanbase is theoretically composed of voters who Trump hopes will fill in the bubble next to his name on Election Day to swing the state red. 

By aligning himself with something as quintessentially American as football, Trump likely aims to appeal particularly to voters in the Rust Belt. And by claiming responsibility for the return of Buckeyes football, he might paint himself as a hero to many such voters — Ohio State currently sits at No. 3 in the AP Poll.

Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign has outspent Trump’s when it comes to advertising on nationally televised sporting events. The Biden campaign has spent $35.8 million on ads during NFL games alone this season. Trump, of course, has criticized the NFL ad nauseam for allowing players to kneel during the National Anthem. 

And, where Trump hasn’t been able to forge alliances, he has deepened divisions — recently by encouraging a crowd to chant “LeBron James sucks” at a rally in Pennsylvania on the eve of Election Day. Los Angeles Lakers star James, who at that point had not officially endorsed any presidential candidate, has been outspoken regarding social justice issues this year and has in the past made clear a certain disdain for the president. 

After Trump commented that James and the NBA overall “don’t respect our country” at the rally, James came out that night with an official endorsement of Biden’s campaign on his Instagram. Prior to Monday night, James’ official stance did not go beyond promoting his More Than a Vote campaign that was aimed at get-out-the-vote and anti-voter suppression efforts.

The NBA has shown a deep commitment to social justice this year, leading the way in canceling all games on the day of Jacob Blake’s shooting in Kenosha, Wis. The NBA and its players have been outspoken in the fight against police brutality and had the term Black Lives Matter prominently displayed throughout games in the playoffs. 

Though the NBA itself takes no political stance, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement is often viewed as a liberal viewpoint, particularly by Trump and those in his camp.

Not all leagues have found themselves as synonymous with the Biden campaign. The NHL, which has long been noted for a lack of diversity, was criticized for how little it acted to support this summer’s social justice movements. 

Further suggesting a conservative viewpoint throughout the league in comparison to the NBA, NHL legend Bobby Orr took out a full-page ad in a New Hampshire newspaper on Oct. 30: The ad, in support of Trump, showed Orr, his wife and the president grinning and giving the camera thumbs-ups. Orr is still involved with the NHL and acts as an agent to several top players in the league. 

Like Trump’s comment about the Big Ten, Orr is trying to pull at the heartstrings of his fanbase in a battleground state — with Orr being a former Boston Bruins player, many voters in New Hampshire will have fond memories of the defenseman.

Candidates and athletes alike have significantly intertwined sports and politics in the runup to the 2020 election. Sports leagues this year have been affected by both COVID-19 and social movements, leading to the difficulty of differentiating between these leagues and the politics of the presidential race. With sports used as a political tool in this year’s campaigns, citizens are tasked with separating their sports allegiances from their political affiliations.