Be­yond ges­tures, sports push change

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Sports - By Paul New­berry As­so­ci­ated Press

AT­LANTA — Kneel­ing is a pow­er­ful ges­ture. T-shirts send a mean­ing­ful mes­sage. Lock­ing arms is a mighty sym­bol of unity in these trou­bled times. It doesn’t stop there. If you look even deeper across the gamut of sports, a truly in­spir­ing move­ment is emerg­ing from the na­tion’s so­cial up­heaval, sparked by ath­letes, coaches and team ex­ec­u­tives who are no longer con­tent to just shut up and play.

A group founded by LeBron James do­nated $100,000 to help Florid­i­ans with prior felony con­vic­tions reg­is­ter to vote. Sports are­nas are be­ing trans­formed into enor­mous precincts to help lessen the risks of cast­ing a bal­lot dur­ing the coro­n­avirus pan­demic. Col­leges around the coun­try are get­ting be­hind a move­ment to give ath­letes a day off on elec­tion day.

Sam Cooke sang more than five decades ago that a change is gonna come.

Maybe it’s fi­nally com­ing — and more im­por­tant, will ac­tu­ally stay a while.

“We’re look­ing for op­por­tu­ni­ties to make changes that will last,” said Eric Reveno, the Ge­or­gia Tech as­sis­tant basketball coach who sparked the move­ment to give col­lege ath­letes a day off to vote in the Nov. 3 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Reveno doesn’t want this to be a one-time-only ges­ture, ei­ther. Next month, the NCAA is set to take up a mea­sure that for­mal­izes the #Al­lVoteNoPla­y rule be­yond the 2020 elec­tion.

“I’d re­ally like to change the num­ber of 18- to 24year-olds who are vot­ing over the next 10 years,” said Reveno, point­ing to a de­mo­graphic that tends to turn out in the small­est num­bers on elec­tion day. “I re­ally hope to make a dif­fer­ence.”

In early June, when protests were break­ing out all around the na­tion over the death of Ge­orge Floyd while in po­lice cus­tody, the Ge­or­gia Tech coaches held a Zoom call with their play­ers to let them vent their con­cerns and fears.

One player’s com­ments sparked an epiphany in the Reveno, 54, who has been at Ge­or­gia Tech since 2016 and a col­lege coach for nearly a quar­ter-cen­tury.

“I thought back on my life as a coach,” he said Friday in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “I re­al­ized that I had prob­a­bly not done enough, like most coaches, to make sure my play­ers were en­gaged in the civic ac­tiv­ity of vot­ing.”

Ri­cardo Allen can cer­tainly re­late to that. The At­lanta Fal­cons safety sounds al­most em­bar­rassed as he talks about grow­ing up in a fam­ily that put lit­tle value on vot­ing. He con­cedes that he was well into adult­hood be­fore he learned even the most rudi­men­tary func­tions of Amer­ica’s sys­tem of gov­ern­ment.

“I didn’t re­al­ize there were so many parts we voted for, that there are peo­ple un­der the pres­i­dent who serve for two years while the pres­i­dent gets four years,” Allen said. “I’m re­al­iz­ing that there’s much more than just vot­ing for the pres­i­dent.”

Armed with knowl­edge, Allen has taken on a lead­ing role with the Fal­cons’ new Rise Up & Vote cam­paign, which was launched Thurs­day on the 55th an­niver­sary of Lyn­don

John­son sign­ing the Vot­ing Rights Act into law.

Allen joined quar­ter­back Matt Ryan and other Fal­cons play­ers in a video that noted the legacy of civil rights icon John Lewis, whose death last month reac­quainted Amer­i­cans with an enor­mously con­se­quen­tial fig­ure in the fight for vot­ing rights and so­cial jus­tice.

It was cer­tainly a strik­ing change for Ryan, who has spent his ca­reer try­ing to make sure he doesn’t say any­thing that might stir up the least bit of con­tro­versy.

“Ev­ery­body’s vote counts. Ev­ery­body’s voice is im­por­tant. Ev­ery­body’s voice should be heard,” Ryan says on the video. “The po­si­tion of sit­ting on the side­lines is, to me, no longer ac­cept­able.”

The Fal­cons plan to part­ner with the group Rock The Vote on an ini­tia­tive that will fo­cus on all as­pects of the vot­ing process, from reg­is­ter­ing to learn­ing about the is­sues to cast­ing a bal­lot.

“We want to get the word out to peo­ple to make sure they are reg­is­tered to vote and be­come as civi­cally en­gaged as they can be. In or­der to make a change, this is one of the first places where we can do it,” Ryan said af­ter a train­ing-camp prac­tice. “The guys are fired up about it. They have some good ideas.”

The NBA’s At­lanta Hawks al­ready came up with a marvelous idea, al­low­ing un­used State Farm Arena to be trans­formed into the state’s largest vot­ing precinct. Ge­or­gia Tech plans to fol­low that lead, fi­nal­iz­ing plans to al­low its basketball arena, McCamish Pav­ilon, to be used as a precinct in Novem­ber.

The school also is push­ing its play­ers to make the most of their vot­ing day off.

While Reveno stressed that the school’s ef­forts are non-par­ti­san and no one will be shamed for skip­ping the elec­tion, he’s de­ter­mined to change the mind­set of the young peo­ple he works with ev­ery day.

“There are two main rea­sons why this age group doesn’t vote,” Reveno said “One, they don’t know how. The process is daunt­ing with all the ID re­quire­ments, all the dif­fer­ent re­quire­ments of how to do it. The com­plex­ity of it can be over­whelm­ing. And, two, they don’t know if their vote mat­ters. Their ap­a­thy is bred by pes­simism. They won­der, ‘Does it re­ally make a dif­fer­ence?’ ”

Ge­or­gia Tech’s ath­letic depart­ment is hop­ing to fill the void that so many pub­lic schools have aban­doned at the lower lev­els.

“They’ll say, ‘I kind of re­mem­ber peo­ple talk­ing about civics class, but I never had it,’ ” Reveno said. “They don’t get that ed­u­ca­tion. But we can do it, and we can do it in dy­namic ways.”

While some of those meth­ods may have to wait un­til the pan­demic is un­der con­trol, Reveno talks ex­cit­edly about bring­ing in civil rights lead­ers to speak with the play­ers, or tak­ing them on field trips of his­toric sites around At­lanta.

Some of them might not even know that the birth­place and the rest­ing place of Martin Luther King Jr. are both just a few miles from cam­pus.

Most im­por­tant, Reveno and oth­ers are in­tent on mak­ing changes that will last.

YOUNG KWAK/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

Ge­or­gia Tech as­sis­tant basketball coach Eric Reveno sparked the move­ment to give col­lege ath­letes a day off to vote in the Nov. 3 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

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