National Post (Latest Edition)

NBA players make push to get out the vote


- Candace Buckner in Washington

Politics have always been a force in Mo Bamba’s life. When he was a schoolboy in Harlem, Bamba wrote a letter to president Barack Obama, urging him to find “new ways to help homeless people.”

In high school, the director of admissions at Bamba’s private boarding school predicted he would become either a basketball hall of famer or a U. S. senator. And in his only year at the University of Texas, Bamba enrolled in a course called “The Black Power Movement.”

But like many young Black men, when it came time to vote in 2016, Bamba passed.

“Now, looking back on it, it was crazy to me that I didn’t,” said Bamba, a centre for the Orlando Magic. He views not voting “as a huge mistake.”

Now Bamba, along with players across the NBA, plans to change that. And, not satisfied with increasing the turnout on just their rosters, the players and league are using their power to push a singular political message between now and next month’s election: Vote.

Their campaign may have the vibe of a corporate- friendly branding effort, with public service announceme­nts shared on social media and airing during playoff games, and players wearing identical T-shirts before games with “VOTE” across the front. But the advocacy goes deeper.

Teams have held drivein registrati­on events, installed ballot drop boxes on their privately owned sites and scheduled Nov. 3 as a paid day off for employees. And while other leagues, notably the NFL and WNBA, have promoted voting, the NBA has pooled its resources for what will be the most organized and largest political effort executed by a profession­al sports league, with 22 of the league’s 30 teams turning either their arenas or practice facilities into polling places.

It’s a show of corporate strength expected to continue through the NBA Finals and into the off- season. But it has largely been the players, reckoning with their past apathy while realizing their power as political influencer­s, who have made increasing turnout this election personal.

“Yes, the league has been engaged on this issue, but all of that was because the players were already behind it. It wasn’t the other way around,” said Sherrie Deans, an executive with the National Basketball Players Associatio­n. “They’re pulling every power lever that they’ve got ... whatever happens in this election, it won’t be because they weren’t present.”

Voting became a priority for NBA players in “the bubble,” the Disney campus where they resurrecte­d this season after being shuttered by the novel coronaviru­s in March. At least 10 players chose to display “Vote” on the back of their jerseys. Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Chris Paul, the players’ union president, also invited NBA and WNBA players to join Michelle Obama on a Zoom call, during which the former first lady encouraged them all to vote.

This new- found enthusiasm came with an asterisk, though: Despite being considered some of the most outspoken athletes in sports, very few NBA players voted in 2016. Among the eligible voters within the league, only 22 per cent cast ballots, according to statistics provided by the players’ union.

Some players faced unique obstacles to casting their ballots: They were in the middle of the season during the November election, and many play in markets in which they are not registered. But in a league in which 74 per cent of the players identify as Black, the low turnout reflected a broader issue: Only 37 per cent of Black men under 30 voted in 2016, a turnout rate 23 points below the country overall, according to a Washington Post analysis of the Census Current Population Survey.

“I always talk about how Black kids and Black people in the community don’t believe that their vote matters,” Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James told reporters Sept. 3. “We grow up or we don’t think that our vote actually matters for who becomes the president. I mean, we’ve seen recounts before, we’ve seen our voice be muted, muted over our whole lives.”

Over the past four years, players and coaches have begun to find their political voice. Some, such as James, have spoken out: In 2018, James referred to President Donald Trump as a “bum” when Trump said he would not invite the Golden State Warriors to the White House. That same year, ahead of the midterm elections, Paul joined Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote coalition to compel young people to vote.

But that presented the union with a challenge. Recognizin­g that others would follow Paul into voting advocacy, the union wanted to ensure its players were living the life they were advocating.

The union made a push to conduct voter registrati­ons for all 30 teams. It started last off- season, registerin­g players at the NBA Summer League and during the Rookie Transition Program, the mandatory three- day event that helps new players adapt to the NBA. Then union officials moved from city to city, registerin­g individual players.

They had visited only nine teams when the coronaviru­s pandemic shut down the league in March. But during the four- month hiatus, the union set up an online portal for players to register in their home counties. And when teams moved into the bubble, the NBPA worked with the league to embed the informatio­n into the campus app, so players could register to vote at the same place they could find what was on the dinner menu.

A month ahead of the election, 75 per cent of eligible voters in the NBA are confirmed to be registered, according to the players’ union. Four teams have 100 per cent registrati­on within their rosters.

Since the league’s restart, NBA players have wielded their power in unpreceden­ted ways, most notably when Milwaukee Bucks players refused to take the court in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wis. Other teams followed, and the NBA post- season briefly came to a halt.

It’s the latest proof that this generation of players is picking up where previous generation­s left off, hall of famer Isiah Thomas said.

“If you look at the ’60s, the ’ 70s and the ’ 80s, we were all very vocal,” Thomas recalled. During his playing days, Thomas marched the streets of Detroit to protest crime, and hung with Nelson Mandela. But in his view, advocacy left the NBA in the 1990s, the era when Michael Jordan, in jest, justified his neutrality by saying, “Republican­s buy sneakers, too.”

“The champion always spoke for the voiceless, and there was a drop when the champions didn’t speak,” Thomas said. “And to this generation’s credit, when they came along they started getting more engaged into not only the political arena but also re- engaging with our communitie­s.”

Often, the players have been led by James. And with Black voter rights under assault, James has zeroed in on protecting them. In the weeks following the unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd, James, partnering with Kansas City Chiefs quarterbac­k Patrick Mahomes and Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix, launched More Than A Vote, a non- profit that combats voter suppressio­n in the Black community.

The coalition’s goal is to get young people to serve as poll workers in communitie­s that lacked volunteers. On Wednesday, More Than A Vote announced it had attracted about 10,000 volunteers.

During that night ’ s finals game, Barack Obama showed up as a virtual fan and urged people to become poll workers, earning a shout- out from James. James’ focus on voting has ignited his peers. Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum narrated a poll worker recruitmen­t ad for More Than A Vote. Memphis Grizzlies second- year pro Jaren Jackson Jr. starred in a PSA that aired on BE T for National Black Voter Day. Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal, who had never voted before, recently joined D.C. election officials to urge other first-time voters to join him at the polls.

Teams got involved, too, pressing to see their arenas converted into polling places. That’s not easily done. It takes buy- in from local election officials, which the Miami Heat learned when Miami- Dade County rejected the team’s efforts to open American Airlines Arena to voters. But most were successful. The Atlanta Hawks’ arena will be used as an early and election day voting site, with 300 booths available. The Sacramento Kings pledged their Golden 1 Center as a voting site for the 11 days leading up to Nov. 3 and election day itself.

“I hope that all of the efforts that individual players and teams and the league itself as a whole are making do make an impact in this election,” Kings forward Harrison Barnes said.

The Amway Center, an 875,000-square-foot arena in Orlando, Fla., will also open for early voting. When it does, Bamba will be there, volunteeri­ng as perhaps the nation’s most towering poll worker.

“I thought it was best for me to step in and show the community,” Bamba said. “And, honestly, show the world that I’m kind of putting my money where my mouth is.”

Bamba insists the players’ plea to vote is a non-partisan message.

“It’s just weird to me that if you’re an athlete and you’re preaching, ‘ Vote, vote, vote!’ that you’re automatica­lly assumed to be a (Democrat),” he said.

But many players, including several superstars, have made their allegiance­s clear. Paul signed a letter demanding former vice- president Joe Biden select a Black woman as his running mate, and he recently joined Biden at a Black Economic Summit in Charlotte, N.C.. Stephen Curry and his family spoke virtually at the Democratic National Convention, endorsing Biden.

Others haven’t picked a candidate and won’ t. But their push to get more people to the polls, especially young Black voters, would likely help Biden. This wasn’t lost on one conservati­ve organizati­on, which used James’ image in a deceptive social media campaign to heighten fear about mail- in voting in battlegrou­nd states. James called out the ads as acts of voter suppressio­n.

“I personally want to see just the voter turnout to be historic. I want to see historic numbers not just for people my age but for people, period,” Bamba said. “I think from there, then I would really know my platform and my voice — that people really listened and that I made a difference.”

 ?? Kevin Sousa / USA TODAY Sports Files ?? Orlando Magic centre Mo Bamba admits he did not vote in the U. S. presidenti­al election in 2016 and says that was a “huge mistake.”
Kevin Sousa / USA TODAY Sports Files Orlando Magic centre Mo Bamba admits he did not vote in the U. S. presidenti­al election in 2016 and says that was a “huge mistake.”

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