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In the months leading up to Election Day, teams and leagues across the world of sports have rallied around a common theme — encouraging Americans to register to vote.
And in many cases, it’s started with their own athletes.
The National Basketball Players Association said more than 96% of its eligible players have registered to vote in this year’s election, after fewer than 25% voted in 2016. In the NFL, the league and the union announced Wednesday that more than 900 players have registered through their joint initiative, NFL Votes. And at the college level, the NCAA’s Division I Council voted last month to prohibit games and practices on Election Day.
Many athletes are longtime voters, but there are plenty of others who will be casting a ballot for the first time.
“I don’t like being a hypocrite if I’m asking everybody to vote and enact change,” Basketball Hall of Fame player, NBA broadcaster and first-time voter Shaquille O’Neal told USA TODAY Sports. “I can’t ask people to vote if I don’t vote.”
Some athletes have been motivated to vote for the first time by this summer’s social justice movement or a specific issue they want to support. Others say they’ve come to see voting as a civic duty. And some are only just now eligible to vote, either due to their age or citizenship status.
USA TODAY Sports spoke with four athletes who are casting their first ballots in a presidential election — and why they’re voting.
Quandre Diggs, NFL safety
In 2012, Quandre Diggs said, he was still a “young kid” — not paying attention to politics, and not in tune with what was happening in the world.
In 2016, he was a little bit older and a little bit wiser, but his decision was the same. He later felt guilty about not casting a vote.
“I called my mom, and she’s like, ‘You didn’t vote?!?’ ” Diggs recalled.
Now, the Seahawks safety is 27, with a family at home and five-plus seasons in the NFL under his belt. He said he’s matured. And from the moment he had that conversation with his mom, he knew he would vote in the 2020 presidential election. He wasn’t going to miss a third opportunity.
“I think just the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve understood the history and the fight that people before me took for us just to have the opportunity to vote,” Diggs said. “Just being able to have time to research and reflect on those things, I think that’s really the main difference between 2012 and 2016.”
Diggs acknowledged that this summer’s protests gave him additional motivation to vote. And he said there’s been a welcome shift in athlete activism in recent years, which has made it easier for NFL players like himself to be more socially and politically conscious — and also know that their employers will support them.
“We all know our voice now,” Diggs said. “I think we’re in the age of everybody knowing their voices.”
A sixth-round draft pick out of Texas in 2015, Diggs is now among the 90% of NFL players who are registered to vote in this year’s election, according to the NFL and NFLPA. He stressed that while the presidential election between incumbent Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden might be drawing the most buzz, down-ballot races are just as important and worthy of research.
“It’s the people in our community that make the change. It’s the people at the state level that make the change,” Diggs said. “Don’t just think it’s an all presidential election. Know who you’re voting for and what you’re voting for.”
Laurie Hernandez, Olympic gymnast
When Laurie Hernandez voted in her first presidential election, she did it as much for the women who came before her as she did it for herself.
This is the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote. But it would take another 65 years, when the Voting Rights Act struck down Jim Crow laws that blocked Black access to the polls, until all Black women were free to vote. And 10 more years until discrimination against “language minorities” – largely Latinos – was prohibited.
“For women, and especially women of color, we didn’t have the right (to vote) in the first place. We had to fight for it,” said Hernandez, who won gold as part of the Final Five at the Rio Olympics as well as silver on balance beam. “We have to make sure we’re telling people that. It’s not something that has always been.
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“That was practically like last week!” Hernandez added. “The ’60s is not that long ago. That’s my parents’ (time) right there. This is a time that’s not that far away.”
Hernandez said she grew up watching her parents vote, and they impressed upon her and her siblings why it was so important. So sitting out the Nov. 3 election, the first in which the 20-year-old is eligible to vote for president, was never an option – even if it did take her three tries to find an official drop box in Orange County, California.
The Republican Party installed some drop boxes of their own in Southern California. But there were questions about their legality, and Hernandez wasn’t taking any chances of her ballot getting tossed.
“That’s even more of an incentive to vote,” she said. “If it’s that difficult, clearly something is wrong.”
But mighty as it felt to make her voice heard by casting her ballot, Hernandez wanted to do more. She checked with her friends to make sure they were registered and encouraged them to vote. She has leveraged her considerable following on social media to make sure her fans, the Gen Zers in particular, know why voting is so important and passed along useful information.
“It’s like a huge group project,” Hernandez said. “If you don’t butt in, if you’re not joining in, you’re not doing the work.”
Stefan Frei, MLS goalkeeper
The 2016 presidential election was a turning point for Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
In fact, it’s what helped drive the Swiss native to apply for U.S. citizenship — albeit, after a bit of hesitation.
“At first, it was deterring me a little bit,” Frei said of the 2016 election. “Because I thought — this is obviously my political views coming into play a little bit — but I thought I didn’t identify with the majority of this country, in terms of the government that was in power, the people that were getting elected.”
Born and raised in Switzerland, Frei moved to the United States at 15 when his father got a job in California. He went on to play at Cal and has since spent the entirety of his professional career in MLS.
After Trump was elected, Frei said he saw the raw divisiveness in American politics and, at first, wanted no part of it. But he also didn’t feel that, as a Swiss citizen, he could take a strong public stance on American political issues, even ones that involved what he considered to be “basic human rights.”
“I bit my lip quite a few times when things were going on that I didn’t like,” the 34-year-old said. “When I wasn’t a citizen at the time, I just felt like it wasn’t my place to speak.”
Conversations with family and close friends helped him realize that, after 2016, he wanted to join those discussions — about what the United States could and should be.
So in the summer of 2017, roughly six months after winning MVP honors at the 2016 MLS Cup, Frei became a U.S. citizen. He cast his first vote for president at a drop box last week.
“I became a U.S. citizen because I wanted to lead by example. Part of that is voting,” Frei said. “It is a privilege, a right as a citizen of a democratic state. But I also think it should be a duty. I think too many people in this country don’t vote, and they don’t realize what a huge opportunity and privilege it is to do so. There are so many countries where that’s not even an option.”
Angel Reese, college basketball forward
Angel Reese arrived at Maryland this summer as the No. 2 recruit in college women’s basketball, a McDonald’s All-American who averaged 18 points, 20 rebounds and five assists per game during her high school career at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore.
She’s voting for the first time simply because this is her first opportunity; Reese turned 18 in May.
“Not being able to vote and have a voice,” she said, “I feel like now, my vote really counts.”
The Maryland freshman said she planned to vote early Thursday morning in Baltimore with her mom, who had a standout career of her own at UMBC and shares her daughter’s first name. Reese wanted to cast her ballot in-person, at a polling place, for both the full experience of voting and to ensure that her vote is counted. (“And I can get my sticker!” she added.)
Amid years of protests and civil unrest, Reese said it’s been “tough” not being able to express her opinions at the ballot box. She said she attended the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore in 2015, which put the importance of her voice in perspective.
“Just seeing the protests and everything, experiencing it, coming from a city — Baltimore — that is a rougher area,” Reese said, “I just feel like my vote is really important.”
Maryland, like dozens of other Division I schools, has adopted a voting initiative within its athletics department to ensure its athletes are registered and encouraged to vote. Reese said the majority of her teammates have already sent in their absentee ballots, while she and a handful of others from the area made plans to visit local polling places. There’s no doubt in her mind that her age group will be pivotal; only 43% of eligible voters between 18 and 24 cast a ballot in 2016.
“Everybody wants change,” Reese said. “It starts with us. And it starts now.”
Contributing: Mark Medina