Nov 10, 2020

A Platform for Change: Athletes Embrace New Role in 2020

Michael Haddix

The 2020 Presidential election set a new record for voter turnout, with more than 140 million Americans casting their ballots. While the magnitude of this year’s decision undoubtedly drove the numbers up, it’s hard to deny the impact of sustained, coordinated “get-out-the-vote” efforts and some particularly loud voices for change: athletes.

Sports and politics have been intertwined for decades; from Jessie Owens to Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick, athletes (and particularly black athletes) have a well-documented history of making their voices heard on social matters. What’s relatively new is athletes’ broad engagement in pushing policy agendas and publicly supporting (or challenging) politicians. In the past, this would have been frowned upon as bad for business, driving away potential endorsers and fans. Now it’s seen by some as a responsibility.

Leading the way have been some of the most recognizable names in sports like LeBron James and Chris Paul. Back in July, LeBron launched More than A Vote, an organization aimed at inspiring African Americans to register and vote in November and combat voter suppression. Paul took to the campaign trail, speaking at Biden for President events, leading voter registration efforts among NBA players (player participation increased from 20% in the 2016 election to more than 90% in 2020), and encouraging young voters during appearances at HBCUs over the past few months.

People are listening. A number of recent studies and surveys have demonstrated that black athletes’ political activism is swaying key constituencies. And in the lead-up to the 2020 election, political activism grew to encompass not only individual athletes, but their unions, leagues and teams.

So what’s behind the movement and why is it working? Here’s what we can learn from CP3, LeBron, and others:

Be authentic. The most effective voices are those who fight for what they believe in, who draw on their own experiences to support the mission. Recent incidents of racial injustice -- particularly the murder of George Floyd -- served as a powerful, personal impetus for LeBron to get organized around this election cycle.

Be persistent. Athletes must continue to show up and stay engaged. Activism isn’t a one-time thing; those fighting for change are in it for the long haul and must be willing to face criticism. Malcolm Jenkins has championed criminal justice reform for years, lobbied lawmakers on Capitol Hill about community-police relations, joined civil rights marches this summer, and recently covered lunch for 300 Philadelphia poll workers. He’s kept his foot on the gas -- fighting for what he believes in and using his platform to advocate for change.

Gather your troops.
Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Gathering others in a shared mission helps amplify the work and turn a message into a movement. For years, Paul heard peers tell him that their votes “didn’t matter.” As NBPA president, he identified player-leaders across the league to help spread the message of the importance of voting and to share resources on voter registration. These efforts led to entire teams registering en masse and driving player engagement in this year’s vote.

While a tree can’t grow without seeds, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to make sure that once planted and growing, the tree will bear fruit. By using their high-profile platform to learn the issues, share their voice, and consistently advocate for their beliefs, athletes are paving the way for change -- now and in the future.