The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How athletes built a voter-turnout machine for 2020 and beyond

Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Quinn Cook kneel during the national anthem Sept. 22. James led the players' push to advocate for voter rights this fall. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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As their playoff-pausing wildcat strike ended in August, NBA players returned to the court with a vow from team owners to offer their arenas and practice facilities as polling places.

Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris was admiring the concessions from home when some of his friends asked whether they packed the punch to match the moment. “Y’all did all that for that?” they asked.

After the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., frustrated players in the league’s Florida bubble, led by the Milwaukee Bucks, decided they weren’t going to play and even considered shutting down the season altogether.

The protest wasn’t made with the expectation of receiving anything in return. But Harris, recognizing that progress mostly occurs incrementally, not in one fell swoop, saw the gesture to aid those who have been disenfranchised in this democracy as significant. “Every little thing counts,” he said in a recent telephone interview.

Voter suppression has long been an impediment for change within the Black community, and it had the potential to be amplified by the coronavirus pandemic. Still, when the league’s board of governors acquiesced to demands for more voter access, pushed by LeBron James and Chris Paul and encouraged by former president Barack Obama, the move was met with some doubt. Marginalized communities are accustomed to receiving empty platitudes and impactless overtures in times of crisis — carefully crafted tweets and charity donations that give the appearance of support but mostly just silence the conversation.

“When really serious issues that impact the community [arise], oftentimes franchises, owners and athletes, they go silent. They ghost us,” said Nsé Ufot, chief executive of the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan effort founded by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to increase voter registration in the state.

Harris understood why the generation of athletes that came before him was quiet. “If you look back in history, a lot of guys were afraid to say something just because they didn’t know if there would be ramifications for it,” he said.

But he also knew “stick to sports” had been delivered a death blow two months before, when a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on George Floyd’s neck, causing his death and forcing many to confront a reality that had been long ignored. Teams weren’t going to get away with inaction or the bare minimum and expect to move along. The athletes who serve as the faces of those franchises were ready to voice their frustration with the inequality they had witnessed or encountered before and after they reached celebrity status.

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The groundwork had been laid three years before, when sports executives and voting rights advocates started working toward using athletes and arenas to increase Black turnout. Then a tumultuous 2020 brought a perfect storm of events to initiate change — a president who ignited culture wars to deride athletes and sports leagues; a deadly virus that would require bigger, safer polling places; and a police killing that energized marginalized communities that often approach elections with apathy.

The outcome was an election that saw record voter turnout and yet was still decided by close ballot counts in a handful of critical states. Athletes chose not to sit this one out, then witnessed how their competitiveness could translate beyond the field or court — in 2020 and for years to come.

“I think people are going to look back on this election as one of those tipping points where players became engaged and, I think, changed the course of events in our country for the better,” said Detroit Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem, whose franchise used its training facility as a voting place and receiving board for ballots. “I don’t think it’s going to stop here.”

A plan in place

The concept of turning massive sporting facilities, many of which are funded with public money, into vehicles to promote democracy goes back to a conversation in the summer of 2017 between former NFL executive Scott Pioli and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

Pioli and Benson were working together with the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, a coalition of pro teams and college programs set up by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross to encourage athlete advocacy. Among their shared interests: expanding voting access.

As chief executive of the initiative, Benson said she created RISE to Vote to get more athletes to “roll up their sleeves and get more involved in the actual support of elections.” Pioli, then the assistant general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, presented the sports-facilities-as-polling-sites idea during a board meeting, arguing that franchises and universities had a moral obligation to help people who face obstacles to voting, who are more often poor and racial minorities.

It wasn’t until a few years later that the concept began to become a necessary strategy. With the Democratic primaries in full swing, the pandemic hit, threatening turnout. It became clear that traditional polling places — churches, libraries, rotary clubs and other tight, often poorly ventilated spaces — wouldn’t be available. But cavernous arenas and stadiums, with no games or concerts to fill them, would.

Benson reached out to Pioli, and they started brainstorming. The Floyd protests intensified their efforts and sparked greater urgency from the sports community as combating systemic racism took precedent over simply needing bigger spaces. Benson, a Democrat, became an adviser to More Than a Vote, the initiative started by James after Floyd’s killing to enhance voter participation. While pushing for arena availability, Benson also encouraged the recruitment of more poll workers because most were elderly retirees who couldn’t assume the health risk of the coronavirus.

She spoke with the Pistons’ Tellem and executives from other Michigan teams about ways they could help educate voters and about using venues to serve a greater good. And that went beyond simply providing a safe place to fill out a ballot.

“We had fears the actual physical ballots needed to be secure. Ford Field and the Pistons stepped up and said, ‘We’ll protect them,’ ” Benson said. “We can’t manage, particularly, a high-turnout election during a pandemic on our own. Sports partners became the missing piece that enabled us to meet our goals this year, at least in Michigan and many other states, to have a well-run election.”

Pioli went to work, too. In June, he spoke at the National Association of Secretaries of State convention, sharing how to use sports and sports celebrities to increase voter participation. Individual secretaries of state then reached out to Pioli for consultation, he said, and he leveraged his relationships across the NFL and the college ranks to get local football stars to participate in PSAs about mail-in voting and getting registered.

“Doing this work isn’t just about voting,” Pioli said. “Voting is about racial equity and equality.”

The stadiums lent credibility and safety to the voting process. They also helped avoid the long lines that discourage otherwise willing participants with limited time, especially in a pandemic. Plus there was the element of charm that comes from casting your ballot at Fenway Park, Madison Square Garden or Dodger Stadium.

“I don’t want to underestimate the cultural value. You turned [voting] into something cool to do, something fun to do,” said Michael Tyler, executive vice president of public affairs for More Than a Vote. “It created a buzz and atmosphere around it. You created a moment out of it.”

NBA players’ historic push to increase turnout started by getting each other to vote

Their efforts spread. Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, watching the Floyd protests take over the streets of Georgia’s capital city, thought of offering up his team’s arena, and Fulton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Robb Pitts signed off on turning it into a voting precinct within 10 minutes of his tour. Hawks Coach Lloyd Pierce immediately got behind it, too, and volunteered as a poll worker.

“Protests need to lead to change, and the only way to make real, sustainable change is voting. And that’s not an original idea. [Late congressman] John Lewis preached that all his life,” Koonin said. “What the protests said to me is that there is energy, but energy has to meet action. And the action is voting and then the people speak. We solved a problem.”

The unplanned, leaguewide strike after Blake’s shooting provided another opportunity to leverage the moment. Paul and James called Obama for advice and came away with a strategy focused on voting. In a matter of days, they saved a season, raised awareness and got 23 of the 30 teams to offer either their arenas or practice facilities as polling places. For the conference finals and NBA Finals, warmup shirts that had read “Black Lives Matter” earlier in the season’s reboot read “Vote.”

“It was extraordinary because what began as a small idea with a few teams became a movement in that moment,” Benson said.

Paul Millsap, the Denver Nuggets’ 14-year veteran, used “Vote” as one of the league-approved social-justice messages on his jersey in the bubble; the vertical image of “VOTE 4 MILLSAP” almost looked like a campaign billboard. The Blake protest inspired him to put action behind his words: He offered the 44,000-square-foot training facility he owns, Core4, to house 30 voting machines and four scanners as an early polling location in DeKalb County, just east of Atlanta, where Millsap played four all-star seasons with the Hawks. Core4 attracted 15,237 voters, according to DeKalb County election results.

“It’s about doing stuff now. It’s about making things happen. It’s not just about talking,” Millsap said. “I felt, in this community, I could open up my facility and alleviate some of that stress. These are the votes that we’ve been missing over the years.”

Harris chose other ways to engage potential voters. He marched in Philadelphia in response to Floyd’s killing, and he used his first media session in the bubble to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by Louisville police. In October, Harris was appointed, along with Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan and Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes, to the board of the newly established NBA Foundation, which will contribute $300 million over the next 10 years to foster economic empowerment in Black communities.

“The whole ‘Keep politics out of sports’ people have to understand that injustices are not politics,” Harris said. “What we’re really trying to get across are the injustices going on, in this country, to African Americans. When you hear that a lot of times, it’s an excuse to kind of negate what really is going on.”

He also pushed back against friends who suggested he and his colleagues hadn’t demanded enough — not knowing that he would directly benefit. Some confusion over his neighborhood polling site in his offseason home of Orlando led Harris to a comfortable alternative: the Magic’s Amway Arena.

“When you look at this election and how it played out, opening up these arenas played a factor,” Harris said. “I think people need to understand that. I’m proud of all my NBA brothers for holding it together and really trying to do something to make change. To have that little piece, it was huge.”

‘They understand their power’

By November, roughly 70 venues, including college, NFL and MLB stadiums and NHL and college arenas, were on board. They made a difference, advocates say.

“We needed to do more this year, and the sports community is needed more to ensure democracy works for everyone,” said Benson, whose state, Michigan, had record turnout. “When you have a close election, you can point to innovations like that to suggest that this is why we had more people voting than ever before.”

Pennsylvania, another crucial swing state, set a record for registered voters: 9.1 million, beating the previous high of 8.75 million. A hockey fan, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar was especially excited that the Pittsburgh Penguins were the first NHL team to collaborate with a state on efforts to boost voter participation. The Philadelphia Eagles used Lincoln Financial Field as a drop-off site for mail-in ballots, and team mascot Swoop welcomed drivers as they submitted their votes.

“There is no question that seeing the athletes and the leaders in athletics made a huge difference in the enthusiasm,” Boockvar said. “Having so much that we have been unable to do this year, I think the athletes and teams understood that this was a whole other role they could play. They put their money where their mouth was.”

In Georgia, the Hawks estimated that nearly 40,000 people chose to cast their ballot at State Farm Arena during a 19-day early-voting period. Among them, Koonin said, was an 80-year-old man who hadn’t voted for 30 years because he couldn’t physically wait in line. When his vote went through, Koonin said, the man broke down in tears.

President-elect Joe Biden took Georgia by 11,779 votes, becoming the first Democrat to win there since 1992. And that state will now serve as a testing ground for athletes’ power to keep turning out voters.

Both Senate races are headed to runoffs next month, with control of the Senate on the line. But only one of them includes Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream who criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and the league’s players for being outspoken about the deaths of Taylor and Floyd.

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WNBA players became Loeffler’s foil. Her Democratic opponent, Raphael Warnock — pastor of the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. once was pastor — was polling in single digits when players wore “Vote Warnock” shirts to their nationally televised games Aug. 4. He ended up winning the most votes and is now slightly favored to win the seat.

“Professional athlete is what you do; it’s not what you are,” Ufot said. “You still have family that you love. You still have hopes and dreams and aspirations. You don’t want your race to be the reason you die. You don’t want your gender to be the reason you don’t get paid for the work that you do.”

In witnessing that their voices were not only heard but played a role in effecting change, athletes will have difficulty going back to a time when taking a political stance was deemed a distraction, or worse. They now have an incentive to keep pushing.

They already are. On Tuesday, with a month to go before next month’s runoffs, WNBA stars Sue Bird, Nneka Ogwumike and Elizabeth Williams stumped for Warnock at a virtual rally. The Hawks will use State Farm Arena as a voting precinct, just as they did during the general election. And this time, Fulton County residents will have another option: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the Falcons.

“This is not going to be a sideline issue for any of these athletes anymore,” Tyler said. “They understand their power. They understand their influence, and they’re going to wield it for the benefit of their communities on a consistent basis now.”