James and other NBA players have worn T-shirts emblazoned with “I can’t breathe,” Garner’s dying words as he was put in a chokehold by a New York City police officer.
Obama has said generally that he believed it was “important” for athletes to speak out on political and social issues. But in an interview with People magazine released Friday, he offered his strongest endorsement to date of the protests from James and other NBA players.
"You know, I think LeBron did the right thing," Obama said.
The president noted that sports stars like Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Bill Russell played a role in “raising consciousness” in the past, and said he was pleased to see athletes doing so again.
"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 said. "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.
"I'd like to see more athletes do that," the president added. "Not just around this issue, but around a range of issues."
Attorney General Eric Holder has similarly praised the protests, telling the Chicago Sun-Times that it “shows a level of involvement.”
“It shows a depth to them beyond just being great ballplayers,” he said.
NBA stars began wearing the shirts, after a grand jury declined to indict police officers who put Garner, an unarmed black man, into a chokehold as they were attempting to arrest him.
There have been mass protests around the country following the decision, coupled with a grand jury’s decision not to indict a Ferguson, Mo., police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. Holder has pledged federal civil rights investigations into both incidents.
On Thursday, the president signed an executive order establishing a task force to examine ways to improve relations between police departments and the communities they serve. That panel is expected to deliver a series of concrete proposals to Obama by March 2.
"The president made it very clear when he created this task force he wanted this to be on the fast track," senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said Thursday, adding that Obama held a "personal commitment and determination to seek change."