Sports

CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER

Athletes who are not afraid to speak out have my respect

LeBron James spoke Sunday in Cleveland during a rally for Hillary Clinton.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

LeBron James spoke Sunday in Cleveland during a rally for Hillary Clinton.

Only through the union of American sports and politics could we have a King imploring people to participate in the democratic process.

LeBron James had “The Block” to deliver Cleveland its first major pro sports championship since 1964, when the original LBJ was in the White House. But the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar spent Sunday trying to strengthen Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s Ohio voting bloc.

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King James introduced Clinton at a Cleveland campaign rally. The man who gave us “The Decision” was trying to sway undecided voters to Clinton’s camp for Tuesday’s election, making it clear that he endorses more than sneakers and headphones.

An athlete like James, who wrote an op-ed endorsing Clinton, using his celebrity for political purposes is anathema to some sports fans. They want sports as apolitical as possible. The sports world is viewed as an escape from the charged debates, vexing social issues, and ceaseless recriminations that fill American politics. Sorry. Sports don’t exist apart from the real world, and the reality is that sports and politics are too similar not to mix.

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Sports and politics are both cutthroat competitive. They both revere history. They both inspire wall-to-wall coverage and hyperbolizing pundits. They both require energizing bases — fan and voter. In both, logic and viewpoint are often dictated by loyalty to a particular team.

When it comes to partisanship, can either Republicans or Democrats compete with Patriots fans?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump evoked locker rooms to defend his lewd and predatory comments about groping women. Trump termed his reprehensible remarks locker room talk. If Trump ever uses this defense with a baseball player or writer, he better make sure he calls it clubhouse talk, unless he courts derision.

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Some sports coaches can filibuster, evade answering uncomfortable questions, and say nothing of substance better than any politician. Wittingly or not, Belichick interjected himself into the election fray on Monday. In an attempt to appeal to New Hampshire voters, Trump read a letter of support for his campaign purportedly written by Belichick. Trump also claimed that quarterback Tom Brady told him he voted for him.

We go to the polls to vote — and also to check out who is No. 1 in the college football and college basketball rankings. Sportswriters elect players into the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Fans vote for all-star teams.

As president, Teddy Roosevelt used his influence to help save the sport of football, which had grown so deadly by 1905 that there was a growing movement to outlaw it. Roosevelt summoned leading football coaches and athletic advisers to the White House to discuss how to change the game.

If it weren’t for Roosevelt you might be agonizing over how to improve your fantasy rugby team.

Several athletes have gone into the political arena.

Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning was Curt Schilling before Curt Schilling. Bunning served as a US senator from Kentucky. In 2006, Time Magazine declared him one of the worst senators.

Bill Bradley is not only one of the greatest college basketball players of all-time, a member of the artistic Knicks’ NBA title teams of 1970 and 1973, and a Basketball Hall of Famer. He served in the US Senate from 1979 to 1997, representing New Jersey. He also ran for president in 2000.

Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jack Kemp was the 1965 American Football League MVP and led the Bills to AFL titles in 1964 and 1965. The late Kemp was a nine-term congressman, served as Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary under George H.W. Bush, and was on the 1996 Republican ticket as Bob Dole’s vice presidential nominee.

Seattle Seahawks Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent represented Oklahoma in the US House of Representatives from 1994 to 2002.

Athletes have a right to express their political opinions and participate in the process. However, we shouldn’t assume their stances are more noble or informed.

Just because James is a franchise player that doesn’t mean he is qualified to tell people what to do with their franchise.

But the athlete who is willing to put himself or herself out there with a view that could alienate some of their fans and upset their brands has my respect. That includes athletes whose beliefs and opinions may not be ones I share.

Say what you will about Schilling, but he has never shied away from expressing his views, even when they cost him employment at ESPN. You can question his political wisdom, but not his conviction.

What’s aggravating is when an athlete wants to use his or her fame to propagate their views and then hides behind being a private citizen when they’re questioned on them, a la former Bruins goalie Tim Thomas.

In 2012, he skipped a White House visit and posted philippics on Facebook and left his teammates to explain them.

Brady is different. Despite Trump’s Brady brags in New Hampshire and the resulting backlash from some of TB12’s fans, Brady has not directly endorsed anyone or disseminated any of his political views for public consumption.

However, if Brady didn’t want to be subjected to questions about his friend Trump then he shouldn’t have displayed a hat with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan in his locker last season. Once he did those unwelcome questions became fair game.

James declaring his political preference is preferable to the political apathy that Michael Jordan showed during his playing days. Jordan never endorsed anything other than Nike or Gatorade.

A North Carolina native, he famously stayed out of the polarizing 1990 US Senate race in his home state between the late Republican Senator Jesse Helms, a racial antagonist who fought against the civil rights movement, and his challenger, Harvey Gantt, the first African-American mayor of Charlotte.

Jordan’s reasoning was that “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

That’s a long way from Muhammad Ali refusing to serve in Vietnam and Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising gloved fists at the 1968 Summer Olympics. It’s craven compared to Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem to protest racial inequality and James endorsing Clinton.

Politics and sports provoke too much passion and share too many characteristics not to mingle.

No matter who wins this election that’s not going to change.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

Note: This column was updated to reflect additional news regarding Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the presidential election.

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