President Barack Obama has played it mostly down the middle when it comes to voicing an opinion on the grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.
But in a wide-ranging interview with PEOPLE, Obama didn't hesitate to endorse LeBron James's decision last week to wear an "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt instead of his Cleveland Cavaliers jersey in the team's Dec. 8 game against the Brooklyn Nets. The protest T-shirts invoke Garner's dying words to the police officer who put him in a chokehold.
"You know, I think LeBron did the right thing," Obama told PEOPLE two days after that Cavaliers-Nets game.
"We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness," the president continued.
"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 also 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," he added. "Not just around this issue, but around a range of issues."
For more from our exclusive interview with the president and first lady, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday