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bob hohler

Sports stars used to sit on the sidelines when it came to voter advocacy. Not anymore

The Los Angeles Lakers knelt during the national anthem wearing "VOTE" shirts prior to the start of a game against the Denver Nuggets in September.
The Los Angeles Lakers knelt during the national anthem wearing "VOTE" shirts prior to the start of a game against the Denver Nuggets in September.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The first great wave of civic activism in professional sports is cascading across America, and it looks like this:

Millions of television viewers watching NBA players wear shirts emblazoned with big block letters: “VOTE.”

Millions more seeing popular players across multiple sports appear in public service announcements with a singular message: Every vote counts.

Still millions more following on social media as star athletes — Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum of the Celtics among them — implore people to cast ballots.

All this while professional teams from coast to coast, including the Red Sox, are opening their venues for a common purpose: to improve access to the ballot box.

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Like never before in the history of sports, a well-funded movement — galvanized by professional athletes, teams, and leagues — to engage citizens at every level of electoral politics is surging.

The campaign dovetails with a social justice movement that has unified much of the sports industry and gained unprecedented momentum since George Floyd was killed in May in police custody. The shootings of Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake, by police, and Ahmaud Arbery, by two white men, have further spurred action.

Celtics star Jaylen Brown has been out in front as an advocate: “Wherever my influence reaches, I want people to continue to vote.”
Celtics star Jaylen Brown has been out in front as an advocate: “Wherever my influence reaches, I want people to continue to vote.”Kevin C. Cox/Getty

“I think everyone was shocked by the events of this year, and we really have wanted to do everything we can to bring about social justice,” said Steve Pagliuca, managing partner of the Celtics.

Voter turnout ranks among the top priorities of Boston Celtics United for Social Justice, a nonprofit the team’s investor group recently formed and bankrolled with a $25 million pledge over the next 10 years.

To date, the Celtics have registered more than 1,000 new voters, helped to distribute more than 20,000 bilingual door-hangers urging Boston residents to cast ballots, and recruited 36 staff members to serve as poll workers.

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MORE: Why Celtics executive Mike Zarren is working to bring ranked-choice voting to Massachusetts

The NBA, meanwhile, has pledged $300 million toward economic growth in the Black community. The NFL is dedicating $250 million to combat systemic racism. The Kraft family, which owns the Patriots, is giving $1 million over 10 months to local organizations for the cause. And several MLB teams are joining the Red Sox in turning their ballparks into polling stations.

For those who believe in the power of the ballot, the collaboration is no small breakthrough.

“I’ve been working in civil rights for almost 25 years, and I have not seen anything like this coordinated, comprehensive effort across so many sports,” said Anne Houghtaling, deputy director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Thurgood Marshall Institute.

Alarmed by the dual threat of voter suppression and the toll that COVID-19 has taken on the nation’s predominantly older poll workers, voting rights advocates have been scrambling to ensure access to the polls for those who would otherwise be disenfranchised.

Voters in many states have waited hours to cast ballots in preliminary elections — a predicament caused in part by polling stations closing because COVID-19 concerns have sharply reduced the ranks of poll workers.

Brown and Tatum have stepped in by promoting voter turnout campaigns, most notably More Than a Vote, created by LeBron James, and When We All Vote, formed by an array of sports figures and luminaries, including Chris Paul, Michelle Obama, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

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“There is a lot of power in coming together and voting, especially in the Black community,” Brown told reporters. “Wherever my influence reaches, I want people to continue to vote.”

More Than a Vote has helped the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Lawyers Committee For Civil Rights Under Law, and another nonprofit, Power the Polls, recruit more than 27,000 new poll workers from Florida to Alaska.

Voters lined up inside State Farm Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks and Georgia's largest early-voting location.
Voters lined up inside State Farm Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks and Georgia's largest early-voting location.Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Those workers are expected to staff many previously closed polling stations, enabling an untold number of prospective voters to reach the ballot box who otherwise may have been unable or unwilling to endure long waits.

“To have all this help from a broad collection of athletes has been unique and invaluable,” Houghtaling said. “It’s vitally important in making sure that everybody has access to their vote.”

More Than a Vote also has donated $100,000 to help ex-felons in Florida pay outstanding fines and fees that would have prevented them from voting under a statute Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law last year. The Miami Heat, Miami Dolphins, and Orlando Magic have also contributed, along with other athletes.

James tweeted, “This is a fight about their constitutional right to vote being denied."

‘A tipping point for change’

Historically, only a small number of athletes had campaigned for social justice: Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Colin Kaepernick among them.

Others stayed on the sidelines, wary of harming their images or business brands.

“Republicans buy sneakers, too,” Michael Jordan once famously said.

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Team owners also showed little appetite for social causes. They are predominantly conservative and Republican-leaning, as their donations to political campaigns through the years have demonstrated.

In the current election cycle, owners of NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, WNBA, and Major League Soccer teams have given $12.6 million to Republican candidates and causes, while only $1.3 million has gone to Democratic candidates and causes, USA Today reported Oct. 2.

Patriots defensive back Jason McCourty wore "Black Lives Matter" on his helmet.
Patriots defensive back Jason McCourty wore "Black Lives Matter" on his helmet.John Froschauer/Associated Press

Now, as much of corporate America has chosen to support the Black Lives Matter movement, the sports industry has largely followed.

Jordan himself joined the cause, pledging $100 million over 10 years with his Jordan Brand to groups working toward racial equality and social justice.

“It feels like we’re at a tipping point for change as it relates not only to the mind-sets of the players but the teams and leagues,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern. “They have heard the voices of the public: voices that have been resilient, resounding, and undeniably resourceful.”

In response, half of the NFL’s 32 teams have committed to opening their facilities to ease access to voting. So, too, have more than two dozen NBA and NHL teams, as well as several MLB clubs. The Red Sox opened Fenway Park this past weekend as an early-voting station for Boston residents.

“Voting is one of the best ways to support and champion the issues and policies we value,” Sox president Sam Kennedy said in announcing the initiative.

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Fenway Park was open on Oct. 17 and 18 for Boston residents to cast their votes for the November election.
Fenway Park was open on Oct. 17 and 18 for Boston residents to cast their votes for the November election.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Effective advocates

The Kraft family, which also owns the New England Revolution, has helped beyond its $1 million commitment. In August, Robert Kraft joined Patriots alumni Ty Law, Tedy Bruschi, and Willie McGinest in leading a voter registration drive at Roxbury Community College. Former teammate Tom Brady has moved on to Tampa Bay, but he also has been active in the movement.

A recent Zogby poll on the influence of celebrities in the national election showed Brady has the power to make a difference. The survey found that 37 percent of respondents considered the six-time Super Bowl champion at least somewhat important this year to their voting decision.

Brady, however, has not publicly endorsed a candidate since he appeared to be backing Donald Trump in 2015 by displaying a “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker at Gillette Stadium. But he is actively helping to register voters.

Starting on Oct. 6, Brady’s media company, Religion of Sports, which he owns with former NFL star Michael Strahan and filmmaker Gotham Chopra, began releasing weekly nonpartisan videos on social media to boost voter turnout. The inaugural video was narrated by Olympic gold medalist sprinter Allyson Felix.

Analysts say the power of popular sports figures like Felix to promote causes should not be underestimated.

“People we admire are strong forces for [urging] people to do something like voting,” said Peter Hart, whose firm Hart Research has conducted polls for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal for more than 30 years. “Athletes are particularly good advocates.”

In tightly contested elections, analysts said, celebrity sports figures can make a crucial difference. Ohio, for instance, is a key battleground state in the presidential election. No Republican has won the presidency without taking Ohio, and recent polls show Trump in a dead heat there with his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.

James, an Ohio native, was castigated in 2018 by a Fox News host who advised him to stay out of politics and “shut up and dribble.” Now he is rallying voters in battleground states, including Ohio.

While the voter turnout organizations formed by James and supported by other athletes are officially nonpartisan, analysts said they are likely to benefit Biden and other Democratic candidates.



LeBron James appeared with first lady Michelle Obama in October 2015 at the University of Akron. The NBA star has focused his attention on his home state of Ohio, a crucial swing state in the November election.
LeBron James appeared with first lady Michelle Obama in October 2015 at the University of Akron. The NBA star has focused his attention on his home state of Ohio, a crucial swing state in the November election.Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said the sports industry’s voter registration effort “absolutely could make a difference” in the battleground states.

What’s more, the campaign could shape generations to come.

“It’s great to see star athletes and teams recognize their roles can extend to encouraging good citizenship," Sabato said. “Young people respond to them, and if you get people involved when they’re young, the momentum carries forward and they’ll probably be active their whole lives.”

More reading: Jaylen Brown looks to make impact bigger than basketball


Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.