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Obama backs LeBron's 'I Can't Breathe' T-shirt protest

The president suggested the Cleveland Cavaliers star's silent protest was part of a long tradition of athlete activism.
NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Brooklyn Nets
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) wears an \" I Can't Breathe\" t-shirt during warm ups prior to the game against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center.

President Barack Obama thinks LeBron James "did the right thing" by wearing an "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt at a recent NBA game in honor of Eric Garner, an African-American man who died after being placed in a chokehold by a New York City police officer this July.

In a recent interview for the Dec. 10 issue of People magazine, where he and first lady Michelle Obama spoke candidly about their experiences with race in America, the president suggested the Cleveland Cavaliers star's silent protest at a Brooklyn Nets game was part of a long tradition of athlete activism.

"We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness," the president said.

"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," he added. "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." 

Obama's remarks are the latest from the People interview to capture widespread attention. Earlier remarks on race by the first lady created a lot of buzz this week.

"I think people forget that we've lived in the White House for six years," she told People with a laugh. "Before that, Barack Obama was a black man that lived on the South Side of Chicago, who had his share of troubles catching cabs." 

Related: Obamas talk about experiences with racial bias

Obama, a die-hard basketball aficionado, has been outspoken not just about the NBA, but also the NFL, which has been reeling from multiple domestic violence scandals in the past year. In a recent ESPN radio interview, the president said he thought the league was too much of an "old boy's network" that reacted way too slowly to abusers in their midst.

On a lighter note, Obama admitted that he also likes to watch pro sports games with the sound off while devouring a "fat briefing book." As far as athletes making their voices heard on contentious issues, the president said he's fully behind them.

"I'd like to see more athletes do that," Obama said. "Not just around this issue, but around a range of issues."