Photo: The Chase Center in San Francisco, owned by the Golden State Warriors, is one basketball arena that could become a symbol of voting rights this fall.
Considering how the latest episode of racial violence in the U.S. has played out — a Black American was shot seven times in the back trying to leave a volatile scene, then shortly after a white kid who wantonly murdered two people was in contrast given kid gloves treatment — it would have been easy for NBA players to give the country a collective middle finger.
Instead, NBA players and team owners have come up with a plan that could help ensure voting rights and boost civic engagement across the U.S. The message from players that “we’re not only here to perform for you” was heard loud and clear.
Cities need more polling places so U.S. citizens can score unfettered voting rights
Imagine if citizens could vote in places that are currently underused at the moment: office parks, lobbies of high-rises, even the parking lots at amusement parks. Cities like Milwaukee, which witnessed a “consolidation” of voting places and shortage of poll workers that resulted in depressing voter turnout in the April primaries, could surely benefit. Milwaukee is only one example of how local governments have found themselves shorthanded during this year’s election season. Whether this is due to fears over the novel coronavirus, actions taken by the courts, or directives from the states or the federal government, what’s occurring in many cities offers the private sector a chance to step in to preserve voting rights — and thereby American democracy.
In fairness, there have been efforts by corporate groups and individual companies like Levi-Strauss and Starbucks to boost civic engagement and raise awareness about citizens’ voting rights. Nevertheless, the NBA’s recent decision raises the bar.
The short answer is that, as we all know, the NBA season will continue. When teams such as the Bucks, Lakers and Clippers made noise about forgoing the season altogether, that was clearly a sign the owners and players had to agree on some sort of plan — and they did, quickly. As a result, one city will claim a championship even as the NBA playoffs continue in the current Florida “bubble.”
Basketball arenas as a symbol of democracy
But what is remarkable is the NBA’s commitment to allow arenas to become converted into voting locations for the November 3 elections. In cities where any related deadlines have passed, teams will strive to use these arenas for another purpose, such as for receiving ballots or voter registration efforts. There is one caveat: the team has to own and control its home arena. Nevertheless, given the state of fraught racial relations across the U.S., few local officials want to risk the optics of looking hostile to a local sports franchise, nor would they want to face the wrath of a basketball star accusing them of hampering voting rights.
The NBA’s decision is wise for another reason. Over the past 30 years, the general trend has been for sports franchises to leave the suburbs and move back to cities’ urban cores, as many civic leaders — for better or worse — saw new sports venues as part and parcel of urban revitalization efforts. And these arenas are now often located close to the very neighborhoods that witnessed long lines during the primary elections season, including in cities such as Atlanta. This announcement also sends a subtle message to the embattled U.S. president and his allies that intimidation tactics designed to suppress voting won’t work at these locations. With fear and confusion reigning with the November election only two months away, access to voting at an arena helps preserve democracy in the U.S. — and could win more NBA fans, too.
Players have stood up for voting rights, but have to lead by example
This plan builds upon the efforts of some professional athletes, notably Lebron James, who have become determined to see that any citizen who has the right to vote in U.S. elections can do so, no matter what barriers politicians try to put in place nationwide.
Transforming arenas into venues that serve to protect voting rights is not the only facet of this plan. The NBA will work with players to launch a social justice coalition, which will advocate for a myriad of causes from criminal justice reform to boosting access to voting. Further, watch for NBA playoff games to include public service announcements focused on civic engagement in order to encourage people to learn about their voting rights.
Some players have expressed doubts whether team owners will fulfill their end of the deal, but given how many of the league’s players have been outspoken on these problems, watch for the likes of James to hold their feet to the fire.
Much of the hard work the NBA says it will now take on has to start in-house. According to one NBA sportswriter, during the ongoing players’ meetings that led to this announcement, it was revealed that only about 20 percent of the league’s players are registered to vote. Contrast that with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, who announced all of their players are registered to vote after the team’s head coach gave a blunt assessment of race relations over the weekend.
That statistic has got to change for the better, but in a culture where citizens emulate their idols, as NBA players act upon their voting rights, watch for more U.S. citizens to do the same as well.
Image credit: Kyle Fritz/Unsplash