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Volume 27 No. 57
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NBA putting words into action, but more can be done

Now that the NBA season is over, actually getting voters to the polls should become the most important focus of the league's players, owners, officials, and staff. Voter registration was one of the top areas of concern during the NBA restart. There were reports from inside the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex that only 20% of eligible NBA players voted in the 2016 election. Coincidentally, the NBA bubble became a ready-made opportunity for the players to implement community organizing efforts to increase voter registration. Led by NBPA President Chris Paul, the NBA’s players are now 90% registered for the 2020 general election with 15 teams entirely registered. Still, I wondered, was this enough?

On Aug. 27, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner stated "Look, I think with the NBA, there’s a lot of activism, and I think that they’ve put a lot of slogans out. But I think what we need to do is turn that from slogans and signals to actual action that’s going to solve the problem." Although Kushner’s comments have proven to be more opinion than fact, the NBA has a proactive, three-part plan that details the blueprint for starting a social justice coalition, seeking support for league owners to convert affiliated facilities into polling places, and securing advertising spots in each playoff game to promote voter access and opportunity. By any reasonable measure, this is more than we typically expect from any citizen, let alone professional athletes. But, at this pivotal moment in our nation’s history, I want the NBA to do more!

Personally, as a community organizer during the 2012 general election, I volunteered for the Organizing for America campaign to support President Barack Obama. Whether it was endless hours of phone banks or canvassing in the snow through the streets of rural Pennsylvania, I have seen the power in engaging registered voters and mobilizing a community of people to the polls on Election Day. As a resident in a battleground state, I believed wholeheartedly that my role was to make sure that my community was well represented at the polls. The NBA has an opportunity for their community organizing efforts in the Disney bubble to serve as a powerful instrument for social change that can affect their communities. But the players are now in their respective home bases and need to step up.

In June, LeBron James launched his More than a Vote website, which has instructions on creating a “voting game plan” for Tuesday, Nov. 3. This site also has a feature that allows you to access polling place locations based on your address, instructions on how to volunteer at polling places and coupon codes with Lyft for discounted rides to polling places. While I love the initiative with the website, social media push, and even an endorsement by Kevin Hart, I still feel like something is missing.

NBA owners have agreed to allow arenas to serve as polling places for the election. What if the NBA players greeted voters in their respective cities during early voting dates through Nov. 1, leading to Election Day on Nov. 3? It is one thing for the NBA players to register themselves, but it would be another for them to use their social media platforms and voices to motivate their followers and supporters to exercise their right to vote. This makes it more than just creating spaces — this makes it about showing up. A proactive effort by the players to mobilize the communities in their respective 28 markets (New York and Los Angeles have 2 teams each) and challenge them to meet them at the polls is more than just rhetoric and jargon. In combination with the commitments from the NBA owners to promote voter access, the personal touch is what separates the NBA players from other sports and this would represent true actions and commitment to social justice, and yes, it would finally truly be enough.

Daniel G. Kelly II, Ph.D., (@danielgkelly2) is the academic director for graduate programs at the Preston Robert Tisch Institute for Global Sport at New York University School of Professional Studies. Prior to joining NYU, Kelly was the faculty director of the Sports Industry Management Program at Georgetown University.