In 2016, seven NFL owners donated $1 million each to Donald Trump’s inauguration committee, proving without a doubt that owners don’t feel the least bit inhibited when it comes to political speech. No, the neutrality directive has always been leveled at players, whose pockets may not be so deep yet whose platforms are as evanescent as their professional careers.
But with Election Day just a day away, at least that last part has changed, and players and leagues are working together in unprecedented ways to help all those who can’t write $1 million checks be heard in the one way they can be — by casting a vote.
This year, the NFL is closing team facilities so that everyone can vote on Election Day. (Yes, Tuesday is typically the league off day, but players still go in for treatment and some meetings, and it isn’t an off day for the coaches and staff who also make up the team.) The league even announced that 90 percent of active players are registered to vote, with some teams reporting they had every player registered. And half of NFL teams are making facilities available for voting.
In the NBA, its 23 team facilities, and the list is merely the topline of a hard-fought and thoughtful slate of actions meant to foster community and voter engagement.
The last four years have been about who gets to define so many of the terms we use in sports; toughness, fortitude, protection and, perhaps most importantly, patriotism.
With Trump, patriotism was about “get that son of a bitch off the field,” parades and inflated crowd size. When it came to sports, championship teams were only invited to the White House if they did not publicly criticize him. Outside of the champions day event for non-revenue sports, only one women’s team, the Baylor Bears, received an actual invitation for just them. Trump didn’t seem to care for women’s sports, unless they held a golf tournament on one of his properties.
There have always been players who declined a White House invitation based on who occupied the presidency, but this was the first era when an invitation seemed to be predicated on paying homage to Trump personally.
And plenty have, from Brett Favre to Jack Nicklaus, Bob Kraft and other Trump endorsers. But this era has polarized sports just like it has the country, and has pitted the Trump flag caravans against the protests of the murder of George Floyd.
Neutrality is an unjust demand from an employer, particularly when athletes have actually done the whole American Dream thing. In the past, they may get to the promised land with thousands of fans only to find they can’t talk about that thing that would make life better in their communities. Ask Colin Kaepernick how that works. Especially when team owners are free to spend their $$$peech on candidates and campaigns.
This year, professional athletes from basketball to NASCAR lobbied their leagues to use their platforms in ways large and small. And one area where there was agreement was in facilitating the vote, whether it meant raising awareness or working with communities to make stadiums available on Election Day.
The WNBA has a social justice council, and the President and Executive Director of Rock the Vote, Carolyn DeWitt, is an advisor to that group. In the last four years the league has grown from a group of women who were unafraid to discuss values, to women who are often unapologetically political.
It isn’t just a Get-Out-the-Vote message, it’s Vote for Raphael Warnock, the candidate running to replace Atlanta Dream owner and Senator Kelly Loeffler in Georgia. Loeffler alienated her players when she took a stand against Black Lives Matter this summer calling it a “Marxist” organization “that seeks to destroy American principles,” without distinguishing that group from the larger issue of Black lives actually mattering. In a league where the majority of women are Black and brown, the distinction didn’t sit well.
In baseball, eight clubs are providing nine voting day sites for ballot casting, processing or drop-off. They’ve helped coordinate educational events and registration drives and had in-stadium messaging in English and Spanish.
Mookie Betts has led the effort, promoting the hours for voting at Dodger Stadium.
“It’s an important year,” Betts told the Los Angeles Times. “So everybody needs to get out there and vote. Everybody’s opinion matters. … Just making it easier for people to vote is definitely what I want to do and something that we’re doing.”
This primary season brought reports of people waiting to vote for four hours, who brought lawn chairs and downloaded a season of some show to binge watch while they waited. Those waits were particularly noticeable in Georgia, and the people in line often looked like Betts, who is Black.
A recent Pro Publica report confirmed that wait time for non-White voters in Georgia have increased as polling places have been winnowed during a pandemic.
So why should athletes and leagues care? Your local sports team doesn’t just ask for you to buy an occasional jersey. No, they want you to care, to put your team in your Tinder bio, to watch every game, to buy your niece a onesie in team colors. They want a loss to ruin your day, but a championship to make the quartet of photos on your annual Holiday card.
This isn’t your usual commercial relationship. Your brand of spaghetti sauce would never intrude like that.
But your team asks to be part of the family. With demands like that, it’s only fair for those leagues to throw an occasional thank you by contributing to the greater public good. Really, it’s the least they can do.
Sports leagues are more commercially viable when things are running pretty smoothly in an imperfect democracy, which is part of the reason ratings are dipping in the current pandemic.
Being neutral on democracy isn’t actually any better for leagues than it is for voters. And it may not make you stand up and listen for two minutes before kickoff, but voting is one of the most patriotic things a citizen can do.
And now is the time.