Democratic candidate Andrew Yang hopes the 'power of sport can unite us'

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US Presidential candidate Andrew Yang shoots hoops with Atlanta Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins and talks about healthcare and politics in the US.

Posted: Dec 6, 2019 2:50 PM
Updated: Dec 6, 2019 2:50 PM

In the United States these days, it's sometimes hard to say anything without offending someone.

Political discourse has become pervasive. You could easily poison a social gathering by mentioning President Donald Trump, the Democrats or the impeachment hearings.

Sport used to be a safe place and an escape. Sport had the power to unite us, but even that became toxic in the era of Trump.

When athletes like the NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and soccer star Megan Rapinoe spoke up about social inequality, they were demonized by many on the right and labeled "unpatriotic." Basketball icon Lebron James has also made headlines for his social commentary.

They are leaders on the field of play, but in these partisan times, can professional athletes possibly speak for all of us in society?

Andrew Yang thinks that they can. Yang is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, and he told me recently that to disregard the perspective of professional athletes would be foolish.

"Athletes are parents, they're human beings first and foremost," said Yang.

"I think athletes get pushed into a role where we forget they're human beings. I mean, athletes have, you know, struggles and anxieties and family problems just like anyone else.

"The fact is athletes are among the most admired people in American life. And so if you were to say to athletes, 'just stay in your lane,' it would actually make no sense to me or most Americans."

I was speaking with Yang on a basketball court in Atlanta, where he was taking a break from the rigors of campaigning.

Shooting hoops alongside him was one of the legends of the game, Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, an athlete who's comfortable working on either side of the aisle. Wilkins once teamed up with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- a Republican -- to tackle diabetes. The initiative was called Nique and Newt's Full Court Press.

"I've got two special needs kids," Wilkins told me. "No one can tell me that I don't know what I'm talking about because I live with it, and my kids live with it.

"I have a responsibility to reach out and find every avenue that I can to give them a quality of life. It's got nothing to do with politics. It has everything to do with being a parent. That's what I'm about, empowering people to help themselves."

Visit CNN.com/sport for more news, videos and features

Yang is a political outsider, but he's rapidly made a name for himself in the battlefield of American politics. He's a serious long shot for the White House, but going into the 2020 primary fight, he's featured in all five of the Democratic presidential debates so far, outlasting better-known rivals like Beto O'Rourke and Kamala Harris.

He's quirky, he isn't afraid of dropping the odd profanity on the campaign trail and he's embraced previously taboo topics like the threat of automation and a universal basic income.

Yang's digital-savvy supporters are devoted and organized, earning Yang the nickname the "internet's favorite candidate."

As we're talking, Yang and Wilkins are dribbling around the basket, peppering it with shots, the latter with considerably more success. Yang is undeterred, he's a bundle of energy, checking in on his wife and young son, cackling uncontrollably at any element of misfortune.

"Some of my fondest memories growing up are of playing basketball as the sun goes down, pretending there's still enough light in the driveway," he says.

"You keep playing until someone runs into something and then you have to stop. There's not a rule that says running for president should be a slog all the time. The fact is that our country could use a bit of an uplift.

"Hopefully, seeing people having fun, doing some exercise, playing a game of hoops. I think it's very positive."

That leads us onto one of the topics that he's most passionate about -- encouraging our children to play sport, luring them away from the hypnotic spell of technology.

Yang is painting a dystopian view of our future, in which automation creates landscapes of vast unemployment and a population zombified by their screens.

"We have to start facing facts about what technology is doing to our kids. We're seeing record levels of anxiety, depression and stress. Parents are literally facing off against a trillion-dollar industry that is mesmerizing our kids.

"As president I'll say, 'You know what's more important than these company's wallets? Our kids' mental health.'"

Politically active athletes may be polarizing, but there might still be some policies upon which we could all agree. Creating a healthier environment for our children is perhaps one of them; maybe there is still a world in which the power of sport can unite us.

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