Last week’s NBA playoff walkout ended with an agreement that the league, owners and players would work together to establish a social justice coalition, set aside playoff TV advertising time to promote civic engagement and make an effort to turn team-controlled arenas into voter registration centers. The political outreach for the league, which has historically supported its players’ activism, remains a newfound frontier. And while the NBA’s announcement of its new initiatives drew criticism from some—President Donald Trump said the league has “become like a political organization, and that’s not a good thing”—it is not alone in its efforts.
Non-partisan organizations dedicated to civic engagement and voter registration have found themselves increasingly engaged with sports groups and forging new partnerships in 2020.
Voter registration drives have picked up size and speed of late, with only two months until the November general election. The NFL, for example, launched NFL Votes in early August, a first-ever league-wide voting campaign.
The Sacramento Kings—in collaboration with When We All Vote and RISE (both voter registration initiatives, the former co-chaired by Michelle Obama)—launched a “first-of-its-kind” 20-team coalition of NBA, NFL, MLB, MLS, WNBA and NWSL franchises to register new voters and get them to the polls in November. In August, the Washington Mystics rallied eight other WNBA teams to participate in a “Unite the Vote” registration challenge.
The Atlanta Hawks will turn their empty arena into the largest voting center in the state of Georgia. Hawks CEO Steve Koonin said he was inspired after watching protesters march the streets of Atlanta this summer. “It dawned on me that the only way to make change is to vote,” he told NBA.com. The team followed those efforts with a new voter registration competition with the Warriors and Clippers called ‘Voters Win,’ which is run by ‘I am a voter,’ a nonpartisan movement supported by a cross-industry coalition of corporations and celebrities (including a number of athletes).
“As a sports team, we have a voice. We have resources and assets,” Hawks director of marketing Narcis Alikhani said. “Especially in a time when we’re not playing, what better way to use that than to help our community? To help people, give them easy access to vote and really inspire change—that’s what we hope to do with all this, and it goes beyond this summer.”
Sixteen NBA venues have since signed on to follow the Hawks’ lead and are set to serve as voting or polling centers. Including other sports leagues, there are roughly 22 total professional sport venues serving in some electoral capacity.
Calls for change have been common in the sports world ahead of the election, but leagues, teams and their enlisted partners echo a shared goal of getting voters registered and to the polls come November, regardless of which candidate they intend to support. NBA players in particular, though, haven’t shied away from sharing their political endorsements while doing so.
Thunder point guard Chris Paul, who has used his platform and NBA Players Association presidency to call for voter engagement, was part of a group that encouraged democratic nominee Joe Biden to pick a black woman as his running mate. The Lakers’ LeBron James helped create More Than a Vote earlier this year: an athlete-led nonprofit group devoted to supporting black voters, recruiting poll workers and turning more stadiums into polling sites for Election Day.
On Aug. 19, James, who campaigned for Hillary Clinton in 2016, said he would “for sure” do the same for Biden and his vice presidential choice, Kamala Harris. Two days later, Warriors guard Steph Curry and his wife, Ayesha, also endorsed Biden, while calling upon Americans to vote. Curry has long been a supporter of ‘I am a voter,’ as have other athletes including Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns.
The move to leverage athlete influence isn’t new—their reach and communal significance is undeniable in most markets—but the extent of those efforts have expanded greatly this summer.
“Our strategy is to be everywhere everyone else is,” said Natalie Tran, executive director of the CAA Foundation, which is a founding partner of ‘I am a voter.’ The NFL partnership is the organization’s first official inroads into a major sports league, despite its history of sports-related supporters. In addition to NBA teams and the NFL, the movement also works with the NBA Players Association, NBA Coaches Association and NBA Wives Association. “The NFL and NBA’s reach is absolutely incredible. We have so many partners with incredible platforms, but [with sports] we can really drill down in some of these communities.”
The NFL’s league-wide initiative was also a response to player activism. Chiefs stars Patrick Mahomes and Tyrann Mathieu, who have both utilized their platforms to discuss social injustice, led a voter registration drive that eventually landed at the league level. NFL Votes is a non-partisan effort focused on education, registration and action supported by three organizations—‘I am a voter,’ RISE’s Rise to Vote and Rock the Vote.
“We wanted to partner with organizations that had breadth, reach and the non-partisan manner to provide education when it comes to the voting process and civic engagement,” said NFL senior vice president of corporate communications Traci Otey Blunt. “We at the league are trying to help promote and bring attention to the things our players are doing as positive recognition for the work they do.”
Neither ‘I am a voter’ nor RISE’s Rise to Vote campaign have any direct connection to a particular political party or any PACs. Rock the Vote, a 501(c)(3) has a sister organization (a 501c4 called ‘Rock the Vote Action Fund’) that describes itself as “dedicated to building the political power of young progressives and leveraging that power for action on issues that affect their lives.”
Eight teams—including the Saints, 49ers, Seahawks and Buccaneers—are working with ‘I am a voter.’ The rest split between Rock the Vote and RISE’s Rise to Vote initiative, which also names MLB, the NBA, NCAA, National Premier Soccer League and dozens of individual professional teams and collegiate institutions (as well as the America East and Big Ten conferences) as partners.
Colleges Join In
As evident by Rise to Vote’s participant roster, the political push has also made its way to college athletics.
“With the events of the summer and the [upcoming] election, we’ve spent the last month or so on voting initiatives,” said America East commissioner Amy Huchthausen. Her conference has worked with RISE over the last year—collaborating in race-related and social justice efforts and for civic engagement education for its athletes this summer—and joined Civic Nation’s ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge to encourage voting within athletics departments.
“Critical to educating and informing our athletes was to keep it non-partisan, but it’s hard,” Huchthausen said. “There have been questions that come up in these civic engagement conversations where it becomes incumbent on whoever is speaking and educating to keep it non-partisan and present both sides of an issue. That’s what’s been done. We’re being very clear in the language that it’s less important how you vote and most important that you vote.”
The Big Ten and Southern Conference joined as ALL IN’s first collegiate athletics partners after the 2016 election. The current challenge cycle started in December 2018 after the most recent midterm elections and now boasts 10 college league participants (four of which formally joined in 2020) including the Big 12, ACC, Pac-12 and Ivy League. The initiative has grown to more than 700 participating campuses, reaching more than 7.5 million students. ALL IN also began work with the National Association of Basketball Coaches to support their Committee on Racial Reconciliation this year, which hundreds of coaches have pledged to support.
ALL IN is one of a number of national non-partisan initiatives of Civic Nation, a 501(c)(3) organization that six-year Obama White House staffer (and former campaigner) Kyle Lierman leads as CEO. Lierman simultaneously serves as the CEO of Michelle Obama’s We All Vote.
“While individuals might have opinions or other responsibilities in the voting world they are personally invested in, when it comes to our work, we want to make sure all citizens have the opportunity to engage in the democratic—lowercase ‘d’ there—and electoral process,” said Stephanie King, director of strategic initiatives for the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge. “When we work with campuses or our other initiatives that means setting aside your personal views to do the job and educate and inform voters of their rights and responsibilities.”
(This story has been updated with details of the Washington Mystics outreach program.)