Athlete activism reached incredible heights this year, and it may have helped Joe Biden win

Shalise Manza Young
·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·4-min read

Voting is supposed to be a right of pretty much all Americans over the age of 18.

Not everyone who has the right uses it. For some it’s just apathy or believing their vote doesn’t matter.

For others, particularly non-white citizens, it is not wanting to deal with the challenge of voting. More and more in recent years, since the Supreme Court effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act, we’ve seen jurisdictions make it harder to do — a 2017 study showed the non-white voters are seven times more likely to wait an hour or more to vote than white voters.

That form of suppression (not many hourly employees can take a half day or whole day off from work to stand in line), coupled with misinformation and other tactics, can be highly effective at discouraging people from voting.

But in a year that has seen both a shamefully inadequate response to a pandemic that in this country has disproportionately affected Black people and a racial reckoning after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, athletes and even the leagues they play in have gone above and beyond in registering eligible voters and encouraging people to vote, especially Black folks.

And their work may have swung the election to President-elect Joe Biden.

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

Take for example Michigan. According to the Detroit Free Press, not only did more people than usual across the state cast a ballot, in Detroit, where over three-quarters of residents are Black, Black voter turnout was the highest it’s been in 20 years.

In June, LeBron James partnered with Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to start the More Than A Vote organization, which focused on several areas, all aimed at getting out the vote in Michigan and elsewhere.

The Detroit Pistons became one of the first pro sports teams to work to get their arena online as a voting location, and over 40 arenas and stadiums around the country followed suit.

While a large percentage of people took advantage of the opportunity to vote by mail because of COVID, with the virus still raging, having essentially the largest available facility to go to for those who wanted to vote in-person offered ample space for social distancing and led to shorter wait times in many localities.

And by Wednesday evening, when the votes from Detroit had been counted, news outlets put Michigan on Biden’s side of the ledger.

The impact wasn’t lost on at least one of the city’s residents, who told MSNBC, “We’re not deterred; as goes Detroit will go Michigan. The Black vote in Detroit is higher than it’s ever been and we will determine the outcome. We’ve gone from picking cotton to picking presidents.”

It wasn’t just Michigan.

Black voters in Milwaukee pushed Wisconsin to Biden as well, just a few months after Milwaukee Bucks players made the extraordinary decision to strike and not play a playoff game after police shot Jacob Blake just miles from their home court. For days leading up to November 3, the Bucks’ Twitter feed was almost exclusively dedicated to voting information, reminders and encouragement.

Though Missouri remained red, with a majority of its electorate voting Republican, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes — one of the athletes James recruited for his MTAV efforts — split the $100,000 cost of making Arrowhead Stadium a polling location with the Chiefs.

The WNBA and its players, the standard-bearers for athlete activism, threw their weight behind Rev. Raphael Warnock in one of Georgia U.S. senate races, leading to a significant bump for Warnock, whose campaign saw $236,000 in new donations from 3,500 new donors and thousands more Twitter followers after players wore “VOTE WARNOCK” shirts in their Wubble.

Warnock is now headed to a runoff with current Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican who was handed the seat last year. Loeffler, you may have heard, is also a co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, and her bigoted words and actions angered the players.

Frustrated she wasn’t booted from the league, they went with a different tact and publicly supported one of her opponents. Warnock and Loeffler will face off in January, and you can bet the women of the WNBA will do everything they can to support Warnock.

One of the Dream’s players, Renee Montgomery, opted to sit out this season to fight systemic racism, including voter suppression efforts, and Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce was the one who had the idea to have State Farm Arena become a voting location, where 40,000 people wound up casting their ballot.

Denver Nuggets forward Paul Millsap offered his Core4 training facility in DeKalb County as an early voting precinct location.

And wouldn’t you know, thanks in part to those efforts there was a surge in Black voter turnout in metro Atlanta.

Educating and encouraging citizens to take part in one of the bedrocks of this country, voting, and offering every opportunity possible to make that as easy as possible should be a given, but the fact is it isn’t. Thanks to the efforts of athletes who are so much more than the games they play, that happened for thousands more Americans this election.

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