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'We're Trying to Reach Younger Versions of Us': NBA Players and Their Quest to Mobilize Voters

As young men, many of today's stars didn't see the point in being politically active. They do now, and they've been working to spread the message.

Growing up in Akron, Ohio, elections didn’t mean much to LeBron James. “Voting was not on my mind,” he says. In Rockford, Illinois, Fred VanVleet didn’t see the point. “I grew up in a place where you feel hopeless,” the Raptors guard says. “No matter who the president is or who is in office, nothing changes.” In Indianapolis, Mike Conley rarely paid attention to who was running. “We weren’t watching the news,” says the Jazz veteran. “We weren’t trying to get caught up on legislation and laws.”

Inside the NBA bubble, players had priorities. On the court, to win a championship. Off the court, to change the world. For months, players used press conferences to call for social justice. They used messages on jerseys to educate. They kneeled during the playing of the national anthem.

And they encouraged people to vote. Through everything from T-shirts to wristbands to in-game commercials—a concession the NBA made after the players staged a work stoppage in the aftermath of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis.—Black Americans were urged to turn out. In a way, says Conley, “we’re trying to reach younger versions of us.

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The players’ efforts seem to be paying off. More than half of the NBA’s arenas are being used as voting centers during this election cycle. James’s More Than a Vote campaign, which he started before the Lakers reported to Florida, has signed up more than 40,000 volunteer poll workers and offered free rides to polling places, among other accomplishments. And the players are realizing that they have to lead by example. In 2016, just 22% of them voted, according to the NBA Players Association. Mo Bamba was not one of them. This year, though, the Magic forward said he might get VOTE tattooed on his forehead. Ninety-six percent of players are registered.

On a recent episode of The Shop, the HBO series hosted by James, former president Barack Obama discussed the “suspension of activism” that had set in among athletes of late. The standards set by the likes of Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali were no longer being met. “For a time, the African American athlete started thinking in terms of contracts, money, shoe deals,” Obama said. But now NBA players are pouring effort into taking on the system. “Black kids and Black people in our community don’t believe that their vote matters,” James says. “My goal is to change that. To educate not only my peers but their communities as well, to let them know that their voice is being heard [and] our vote is being counted.”

Now that Election Day is here, NBA players will get to see exactly how effective those efforts were. Black turnout tumbled in 2016, falling from 66.2% of eligible voters in ’12—Obama’s last election—to 59.6%. Early indications suggest that those numbers will swing the other way in 2020. A Pew Research Center poll found that 63% of Black registered voters were “extremely motivated” to vote this year. NBA players won’t take credit for that. But if the Black vote reaches historical numbers this cycle—and if the young vote leads the way—they will deserve some.

“This is a unique time,” says Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state house representative, “because really we're like in 1918 meets 1929 meets 1968, in that you have a pandemic, you have an economy that's in a depression recession, definitely in flux, and then you have a racial reckoning all at the same time. And players are wide awake. There's nothing about this climate that can be said doesn't affect a particular person.”

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Few in the NBA understand the power of politics like Doc Rivers. A Chicago native, Rivers came up in one of the most politically divisive climates in America. “We had the Mayor Daley Democratic machine for years,” Rivers says, referring to Richard Daley’s 21-year run as Chicago mayor. Rivers’s grandfather was the first Black city councilman in Maywood, a village outside Chicago. His father, Grady, was a police officer. “It’s always been part of our lives,” Rivers says. “It’s always been important.”

Yet Rivers admits: He hasn’t always been diligent about voting. When he was 18, his mother, Bettye, drove the Marquette-bound teenager to the polls for the first time. “It wasn’t an option,” River says, laughing. But as years went by, he would let election cycles pass. “There were a couple of times, presidential races, that I didn’t vote,” Rivers says. “I just thought, ‘I don’t like either guy.’ You learn why you should vote anyway. Sometimes it’s not about the president. It’s about all the things that can happen if the other party that you don’t agree with gets in.”

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That message, players say, is getting through. When the NBA’s bubble opened in July, the country’s climate was turbulent. Many players were enraged by the police shooting of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year old EMT killed in her home last March. In May, Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. That led to the inclusion of social justice messages on jerseys and the words Black Lives Matter being emblazoned on bubble courts.

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Then, three weeks after the restart, police shot and critically injured Blake. Before Game 5 of Milwaukee’s first round series against Orlando, Bucks players chose not to play. The NBA suspended all games, and in an emotional meeting of players from the remaining teams, the season was nearly abandoned. The NBA agreed to create a social justice coalition, much like the one the WNBA already has in place, made up of players, coaches and team owners; increase advertising spots; and work to make every arena operated by an NBA team a voting location.

That included Atlanta, where the Hawks had already committed to turning State Farm Arena into Georgia’s largest polling site. Last week, Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce walked the concourse on the final day of early voting. “I’m not very familiar with that level of our arena,” Pierce said. “Seeing people walk down to the floor to vote is pretty cool.”

Voter suppression—including the rampant use of disinformation and adding substantial obstacles to casting votes, especially in urban areas—has become a heated topic in this election cycle. “It’s hard to get people to care without educating and informing them,” VanVleet says. “The system is designed that way, so we don’t show up, and they can keep who they want to keep in office.”

Growing up in California, Pierce didn’t experience voter suppression. “It wasn’t a big deal,” he says. In 2018, he was hired by the Hawks. In Georgia, Pierce has seen a different side. He has seen the lines at polling places. He has seen people forced to brave inclement weather just to cast a ballot. To illustrate, Pierce uses a basketball analogy: “If you know you're expecting 1,000 people to show up, and you've got to take tickets from 1,000 people, and yet you only provide two people to take those tickets in a 15-minute span, well you're going to have a long line and a long wait,” Pierce said. “Voter suppression to me is when that’s done intentionally.”

Opening up the arena, Pierce says, has had a measurable impact. As he walked the concourse, Pierce saw an electorate happy to be there. “You feel the energy,” he says. “People were excited to be there.” And he knows why they are there. “Players were able to influence this,” Pierce says. “This will change the voter participation in this country.”

For many of the NBA players old enough to vote in 2008 and 2012, the catalyst for their current desire to engage the nearly 30 million eligible Black voters in America was Obama. In 2008, Black voter turnout rate jumped nearly five points, from 60.3% in 2004 to 65.2% in ’08, per Pew Research. The turnout rate among 18- to 29-year-olds was even bigger, jumping nearly nine points. In 2012, the Black turnout rate exceeded that of whites for the first time.

In 2016, with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on the ballot, those numbers dipped. “We relaxed a little bit,” says VanVleet. It wasn’t just the Black vote, notes Sellers. Millions of Obama voters didn’t turn out for Clinton.

In a way, getting voters engaged in 2020 has been the easy part. “If what has been going on the last few years isn’t evidence of you should go out and vote, I don’t know what else can motivate somebody,” says Conley. In the bubble, players acknowledged that real change requires participation in more than just presidential races. And NBA players are invaluable assets to turning out Black voters for years to come. “There is still a gap with 18- to 29-year-old Black men in particular, and that's going to be the challenge,” says Sellers. “And I do think that these players are uniquely positioned to give that particular subset in that demographic a boost.”

James is committed to it. So is Chris Paul, who last week, along with Knicks guard Dennis Smith Jr., led a march of hundreds of students in Fayetteville, N.C., to an early polling site. In Atlanta, Democrat Stacy Abrams, who narrowly lost Georgia’s gubernatorial election in 2018, has participated in conference calls with Hawks players stressing the importance of voting for everything from sheriffs to district attorneys. In August, Jazz players participated in a Zoom call with Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Utah Lt. Governor Spencer Cox and Commissioner of Public Safety Jess Anderson to discuss things that can be done to improve Utah's inner-city communities.

Paul (center) led students in his home state on a march to vote. 

Paul (center) led students in his home state on a march to vote. 

“Who our local officials are matter,” says Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell. “Take the use of the chokehold [by police officers]. There are different laws in different states.” Adds Conley, “Some people might think their vote doesn’t matter, but it does. Local and state legislators—that’s how we can try to figure ways to improve your communities. If we can get people to understand that portion of it, that it takes time and it takes one city at a time to fix this whole thing, hopefully we can get more people involved.”

Whenever the NBA starts the 2020–21 season, things will be different. In all likelihood, messages will come off jerseys. Black Lives Matter won’t be written across floors. Rules against kneeling during the anthem might be enforced. But those are more symbolic gestures. What’s not are the grassroots efforts by players to turn out the vote. Addressing James, Obama said, “To see this new generation, without fear, speaking their mind and their conscience, I think you guys are setting the tone for a lot of young people coming up and a lot of other athletes in other leagues.… You guys really showed leadership on this in a way that deserves a lot of credit.”

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