In September 2020, the NCAA announced that it would make Election Day a mandatory day off for student athletes, with no competitions or practices allowed to take place on the first Tuesday of November. This ruling came out just a few weeks prior to a presidential election that saw widespread attempts at voter suppression and discriminatory voting restrictions, particularly in majority nonwhite areas. Deadspin’s own Carron J. Phillips covered the announcement, when it came out in the midst of a national push to make Election Day a national holiday to increase voting accessibility for working Americans.
And yet only one year later, it’s waivers galore on Election Day 2021, with the NCAA allowing not only sports with scheduled postseason games to forgo the new mandate, but allowing several Division I football and basketball teams to hold practice. Sports Illustrated reported that some of the one hundred-plus waivers were granted “conference-wide,” providing a blanket excuse for each sport throughout the conference to step around the rule, thus limiting the ability of student athletes to find time to go to the polls.
While this election day did not see any national races — only local ones throughout different parts of the country — the NCAA mandate encourages schools to “provide a day each year dedicated to increasing opportunities for Division I athletes to participate in civic engagement. These include activities such as voting or community service, among others.”
Even if certain schools aren’t taking up voting time, they’re missing a unique opportunity for civic engagement and education for their student-athletes — a group of people who have a non-negligible amount of public influence within their campuses and communities. Whether that looks like visiting a local high school or elementary school to encourage younger kids to participate in democracy, volunteering on the phone lines for a day with a voting rights organization, or knocking on doors in their community to spread information about polling places and voting laws, there’s plenty that can be done even in a single day to make an impact. And these are just a few ideas on civic engagement — there exists a multitude of ways to participate in democracy without casting a vote.
Throughout 2020, many groups of NCAA athletes demonstrated exactly that, taking it upon themselves to make statements about the racial injustices being protested throughout the country after the public death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer. The Notre Dame football team organized a local Juneteenth rally during the summer of 2020. Pac-12 student-athletes demanded an end to racial injustice in college sports as part of their #WeAreUnited movement that same year. Players from the University of Iowa came together to speak out against a racist coach who was subsequently removed from the staff (with a million dollar buyout).
Football is the NCAA’s most prominent sport, and is also one of the sports with the highest percentage of Black student athletes. This mandate provides student-athletes with a great opportunity to participate actively in causes that they are passionate about, as well as giving their schools and athletic programs the chance to encourage, support, and amplify these causes and these students. When the announcement was first released in 2020, the chair of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, former Ball State basketball player Ethan Good, said, “By providing this day dedicated to civic engagement each year, we are making a clear distinction that our American student-athletes will always be citizens before they are athletes. The student-athlete voice continues to grow louder and louder every year, and we can see that through this action.”
Some student-athletes play a unique leadership role, and others may just want to be able to take an hour of their day to vote, but NCAA athletes have demonstrated throughout the past year that there is a significant number that are interested in fighting racism and spreading awareness of the issues that they face on and off campus.
One issue with this waiver system is that Election Day doesn’t function as a day off — instead, schools who cooperated with the mandate moved what would have been a Tuesday practice to Sunday or Monday, two days that student athletes often get off of practice to rest and catch up on schoolwork. With 2022 being a major national Congressional election year, perhaps the waiver system will look different. Additionally, schools that are granted a waiver are, at some point, required to provide a different day off dedicated to civic engagement at some point during the school year.