Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills had an innovative idea last year. Having recently become interested both in politics and working as a voice for social change, the 25-year-old decided it was time for his team to think about getting more involved, too. So one day early in the 2016 NFL season, he printed out dozens of voter registration forms and stuck them in each of his 52 teammates’ lockers.
“I was already registered, but I thought it would be cool for the team, to get everyone involved,” he said of the personal campaign he began a couple months before the 2016 presidential election.
His effort didn’t exactly go as planned, however.
“I didn’t get too many responses,” he said.
Not wanting to give up, he passed the idea to the Dolphins head of player development, and it eventually got the attention of owner Stephen Ross, who the year before had founded the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, a nonprofit dedicated to using sports to improve race relations and drive social progress.
Flash forward a year later and RISE is launching a new initiative called RISE to Vote, a year-long campaign that kicks off on Monday, a day before National Voter Registration Day, with the goal of registering as many professional athletes as possible.
Stills said having more organizational effort, as well as the team’s front office involved, made his goal to get his teammates registered to vote “a lot easier,” and today, while he can’t say for sure, he thinks the whole team is registered.
“They just had to come in and sign the paperwork,” he said, speaking of a recent RISE to Vote event held at the Dolphins’ facility that featured speaker Martin Luther King III, as well as a question-and-answer session with community leaders about ways to get involved in the political process, both locally and nationally.
The event, the first of three already held for various NFL and NBA teams, was billed as a nonpartisan effort and did not focus on recruiting players to support specific causes, according to RISE CEO Jocelyn Benson, a former law school dean at Wayne State University.
“We’re about amplifying athletes’ voices,” Benson said. “We’re not about telling an athlete how to do that or what to say.”
Benson said the prelaunch RISE to Vote events that were held for the Dolphins, the Atlanta Falcons and the Brooklyn Nets have all been successful, and there are already 11 more events on RISE to Vote’s schedule, including an event with the Atlanta Hawks on Monday. The organizations said it is concentrating first on NFL and NBA teams, but has plans to eventually hold events for MLB, NHL, WNBA and other professional sports teams.
Benson added that, along with getting more athletes registered to vote, she hopes the athletes will use their notoriety to become leaders to create positive change in their communities, one of the larger tenets of the RISE organization.
“We encourage everyone in sports to recognize that whether you’re left, right, conservative or liberal, we all have a stake in making sure our society is one where we’re unified,” Benson said. “And we are in the process of empowering these leaders.”
RISE to Vote really began to get organized in May, according to Benson. And while she did not specifically tie its creation to either the election of President Trump or the uptick in athlete activism, spearheaded largely by Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling for the national anthem at NFL games last season, it’s hard to disassociate the two when it comes to athlete interest in the project.
For some players, including Stills, Kaepernick’s actions and the rise of Trump led to personal awakenings.
“That’s not what got me to vote, but it has led me to open my eyes to pay attention,” Stills said, noting before that he didn’t think much about politics.
Stills was one of dozens of professional athletes to tweet or retweet messages of opposition to Trump on Saturday, in the wake of divisive and inflammatory remarks about kneeling athletes, NFL safety rules and other issues pertaining to sports Trump made at a Friday rally. Stills retweeted several tweets critical of Trump, including one from Kobe Bryant, which read, “A #POTUS whose name alone create division and anger. Whose words inspire dissension and hatred can’t possibly ‘Make America Great Again.’ ”
Stills recognizes, however, that not every athlete is as comfortable as he is speaking out. While Ross, the Dolphins owner and RISE founder, joined Stills in criticizing Trump (Ross said in a statement, “Our country needs unifying leadership right now, not more divisiveness.), the NFL is known for being a more conservative-leaning organization. For example, at least six team owners donated $1 million or more to Trump’s presidential campaign last year. There are even rumors that the reason Kaepernick, who led his team to a Super Bowl berth after the 2012 season, remains a free agent, is because few NFL owners want him on their team due to his political leanings.
“I understand why some people don’t want to open their mouth because they understand that this is a business,” Stills said, “and some of the people that are higher up, they don’t want to hear that.”
There are other reasons, too, why athletes might be hesitant to take on the role of civic leaders. For Brooklyn Nets forward Quincy Acy, it has less to do with possible career repercussions and more to do with first wanting to educate himself more about political issues.
Like Stills, Acy was inspired by Kaepernick’s activism and registered to vote ahead of last year’s presidential election. He was also excited to learn about RISE to Vote, which held an event for the Nets last Tuesday.
“I wish I’d have had something like this when I was younger in the league,” the 26-year-old said.
Acy added he’s happy to be one of the veterans in the locker room encouraging younger players to get more involved, but he’s not quite ready to take his message to social media yet.
“Once I get more educated myself [about political issues] then I might go to Twitter,” he said, adding that for now he’s content to spread the word about the importance of registering to vote to his family and friends.
“It’s a good initiation for the guys to try to use their platform,” he said. “We take for granted our right to vote and what our people in the past went through just to fight for the ability to vote. … [I’m] just hoping it spreads like a wildfire.”