Yes, America, apparently everything is a partisan political issue, as two very different reactions to LeBron James’ decision to leave the Miami Heat to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers demonstrate.
The hot story on Friday was the tenterhooked anticipation of the NBA superstar’s decision on whether to return to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, and when he did, the news temporarily swallowed the universe, and even made its way into the White House daily briefing. At the top of the briefing, as Press Secretary Josh Earnest was congratulating incoming and outgoing White House Correspondents’ Association leaders, a reporter joked, “I thought you were going to congratulate LeBron,” to which Earnest replied “We may get to that. We’ll see.”
A few minutes later, he did get to it, as Justin Sink of The Hill asked Earnest for the White House’s reaction to the big news. Although Earnest hadn’t spoken to the President about it, he did offer words of praise for the four-time Most Valuable Player, expressing the President’s admiration for James, and praising his return to Cleveland as “a pretty powerful statement about the value of a place that you consider home.”
“I know that the President is a big fan of LeBron’s. I think that he, like many of us, even those of us who are not quite as avid NBA fans — that the President is a fan of somebody that has demonstrated such tremendous skill and athleticism on the court and the President enjoys watching him play.
“The President also has had an opportunity to meet him personally a few times and the President does consider him to be a fine young man who carries himself with the kind of professionalism that is really pretty impressive to see. The fact that he’s made this decision I think is a testament to the kinds of values that he has incorporated into his life and that he says that he’s interested in instilling in his children. So I think it’s a pretty powerful statement about the value of a place that you consider home.”
In stark contrast to the White House reaction, Republicans seized on LeBron’s decision in order to make a political attack, simultaneously slamming James and former governor and Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist in this tweet:
— Florida GOP (@FloridaGOP) July 11, 2014
This is more than just the ill-considered attempt at topical humor that many are dismissing it as. Florida has become a flashpoint in racial politics by virtue of its status as poster state for the Stand Your Ground laws that have created an open season on young black men, and its attempts to suppress black votes. Connecting Crist with LeBron James, whom most people view as showing exemplary character in returning to Cleveland, is a fairly naked appeal to a cultural split that Rick Scott is clearly hoping to exploit.
There’s little downside to making a basketballer into a political football, because even NBA fans who retain admiration for LeBron are far more likely to be Democrats, anyway. According to a 2010 study of more than 200,000 adults, fans of Major League Baseball and the NFL are slightly more likely to be Republicans, but a clear majority of NBA fans are Democrats. That divide showed up in polls of Florida voters, as approval of Lebron James while he was with the Heat was 75% among black voters, and 42% among Democrats, but only 23% among Republicans, and 26% among whites.