Editor’s note: This is one in a series of six pieces that shows how professional sports owners in America contribute to political campaigns, why they spend millions in the space and what that financial power means as athletes across sports continue to embrace activism of their own.
ON THE FIRST day of early voting at State Farm Arena in Atlanta this month, a familiar face peered out from behind a mask. Not all of the voters who passed by Lloyd Pierce, the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, recognized him at first.
“I got a lot of ‘I thought that was you’ on the way out,” Pierce said, joking.
Besides the mask, which covered his beard and mustache, the context was all off. In any other year, the Hawks would be opening up a new NBA season as Election Day approached. The arena would be full of fans and vendors, not voters — or in Pierce’s case, greeters volunteering to help direct people through this most unusual voting experience.
“My first day, there was a man bringing his son down who was a first-time voter,” Pierce said. “It was a cool moment to be a part of, to see that right to vote being passed down from generation to generation.
“And to think that someone’s first time voting is in an NBA arena? What a great experience.”
But Pierce was not there just for the experience.
Five months earlier, Pierce had spoken at an NAACP march and vowed to do more as his community and his country tried to confront the social justice issues that had been laid bare by the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died while in the custody of Minneapolis police in May.
Pierce was joined on stage by several of his players, including John Collins, Kevin Huerter, Damian Jones and Vince Carter. And they were not alone. Across the country, dozens of professional athletes joined demonstrations this spring, calling for change. When their sports resumed play this summer, the WNBA and NBA dedicated their seasons to promoting social justice.
But calling for change and creating change are very different, and this moment — with widespread social unrest, economic insecurity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a racially charged election cycle — created an entirely new challenge: How could athletes channel the power of their collective voice into political action? And how could their leagues and franchises help?
“What else could we do other than tweet or do a PSA?” Pierce said. “The more you dig into it, the more you realize there’s things that we all can do, and voting was the first step.”
ACROSS THE COUNTRY in Los Angeles, Lakers forward LeBron James was asking those same types of questions to his longtime advisers Maverick Carter and Adam Mendelsohn.
Throughout his career, James had ventured into politics on numerous occasions. In 2016, he’d even campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in his home state of Ohio.
But this time, endorsing one candidate felt limiting. The moment called for systemic change.
“We really wanted to bring together a coalition of athletes and artists and build an organization that would fight back against voter suppression, specifically in our Black and brown communities,” Carter said. “We wanted to put forth initiatives that would really change things, and not just post on social media, because when you study the history of Black voter suppression, it’s a real thing.”
Carter and Mendelsohn had worked with James long enough to know that when he put his name and voice behind a cause, he’d want a fully developed strategy. So in January, they’d contacted Addisu Demissie, the former presidential campaign manager for Sen. Cory Booker, to see whether he’d be interested in heading up an organization they’d call More Than a Vote.
Initially, the organization was seen as an extension of James’ other venture, More Than an Athlete, and the scope of the new project was limited to producing content in and around the 2020 election.
But everything changed after George Floyd was killed. James wanted to do something on a bigger scale. He wanted to build a political organization that would leverage not only his platform of 122 million social media followers, but also some of the biggest celebrities and names in sports: Patrick Mahomes, Alvin Kamara, Jack Flaherty, Allyson Felix, Ben Simmons, Trae Young, Mo Bamba, Kevin Hart, Toni Braxton, Sloane Stephens and Draymond Green.
The organization would focus on combating voter suppression, particularly in the Black community. According to Pew Research, the 2016 election was the first time Black voter participation had declined in 20 years in a presidential election.
Then the group issued a letter, which read in part: We are not politicians or policy leaders and we are not trying to be. Our organization is not here to tell you who to vote for. As individuals, we may choose to talk about specific policies or candidates, but as a team we came together to focus on one issue this year: systemic racism’s impact on our right to vote.
Mendelsohn had served as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s deputy chief of staff before he began working with James. Typically he prefers to stay behind the scenes, but helping athletes leverage their power into political action has become very important to him.
“Athletes are as qualified, and often more qualified, to engage in politics and activism than a CEO,” Mendelsohn said. “Why does a business leader with narrow life experience get to question the problems in our country but a cultural leader who faced incredible adversity does not?”
Mendelsohn, Carter and Demissie then recruited Michael Tyler, who’d previously run Booker’s communications staff.
“These are trusted and known voices in their communities,” Tyler said of the athletes he’d be working with. “So how do you arm them with the tools so they can go out and be knowledgeable ambassadors?”
In early June, James organized a Zoom call with dozens of athletes and entertainers. There was a willingness and desire among those on the call to become more politically involved, but there was also a sense of insecurity about not being as politically engaged or well-versed on key issues.
“Sports has always had the opportunity to be a bridge in life in so many ways, and that’s what we’re trying to do as a team. We’re trying to be a bridge, we’re trying to stand in the middle.”
For example, Warriors forward Draymond Green volunteered that he hadn’t voted since 2008. How could he, he explained, tell others to vote when he had not always done so?
“At first he was sort of shy about it,” Demissie said. “And I remember me and Michael texting, like, ‘This is exactly the story we want to get out there.'”
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson was also on that first call, having been brought into the group’s nonpartisan advisory group. “Many of the players involved began to hesitatingly share these stories,” Benson explained. “And I said, ‘This is the missing piece. This is what voters need to hear. This is what no one else can share, and if you’re willing to do that, you could be the game-changers this year. You can be the catalyst that makes this a historic win for democracy.’ And the fact that they’ve all unequivocally, unconditionally stepped up, we’re all better for it.”
WHEN THE MILWAUKEE BUCKS elected not to take the court on Aug. 26, in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Bucks general manager Jon Horst told the players that the front office would support their decision, but going back to the hotel without an action was not an option. After consulting with state leaders, the team elected to support a police reform bill proposed by Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers.
But on the Monday after the Bucks elected not to play, the Wisconsin State Senate and Assembly gaveled in and out of what was supposed to be a special session on police brutality in less than 30 seconds. The next day, Bucks forward Kyle Korver said that the brief meeting — where no senators were present — was “disappointing.”
“Sports has always had the opportunity to be a bridge in life in so many ways,” Korver said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do as a team. We’re trying to be a bridge, we’re trying to stand in the middle.”
The Bucks’ protest might have been a powerful moment of reckoning in professional sports, but it ultimately proved ineffective in creating a direct, political change in Wisconsin. It was, however, successful in amplifying the collective voice of athletes calling for systemic change. After the rest of the NBA and WNBA joined Milwaukee’s protest, James and National Basketball Players Association president Chris Paul spoke to former President Barack Obama, who advised them to use the power of the moment to extract substantial commitments from the league and teams.
As a result, the NBA announced it would form a social justice coalition, convert arenas around the league into voting sites, and promote “civic engagement in national and local elections” with in-game advertising.
WHILE THE BUCKS’ experience with the Wisconsin state legislature underscored the difficulty of translating passion and protest into political action, it reinforced the benefit of arming coaches and athletes with information on issues they care about before they head to the negotiating table.
For example, it’s good to be able to talk about Black voter suppression and how to combat it by opening up sports arenas and concert venues as polling sites. Or how More Than a Vote has recruited some 40,000 new volunteers as poll workers.
But it’s far more powerful to bring in guest speakers like former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who has become a voting rights activist.
And it’s even better when surrogates like Pierce study the history of voting rights to the point where they can quote directly from the landmark 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby County vs. Holder, which rolled back key portions of the Voting Rights Act by permitting states to change their voting procedures without any outside oversight or “preclearance” from the Justice Department.
“I’m not going to speak on something I’m not extremely versed on,” Pierce said. “I’m also not going to act as if I know every part of the Constitution or every law. But I know the Holder case because it’s a very important amendment to the Voting Rights Act.”
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that the “blight of racial discrimination in voting” had been ameliorated by 2013 and that “preclearances” were no longer necessary.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Pierce referenced Ginsburg’s rainstorm analogy, then said, “We’re just trying to get back to something that was basically our right that has been taken away from us. We can’t even focus on the actual election and the policies and things of that nature. We’re just trying to get people to vote so that we can keep our rights intact.”
That level of engagement is more valuable than almost anything a seasoned politician could throw at a voter, Tyler said, because of the standing Pierce and other coaches and athletes have in their communities.
“We actually drew up a whole syllabus for it,” Tyler said. “Complete with resources, op-eds, videos, things of that nature that they can … they can truly go to school on this work.”
ON A TUESDAY night in October, Utah guard Donovan Mitchell, Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris and Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum walked into an empty airplane hangar, sat down in plush leather chairs, masks on, and asked a series of questions about police brutality, education reform and the importance of voting to their guest, Sen. Kamala Harris. The interview was part of McCollum’s new show, and it was posted on the Biden/Harris campaign’s YouTube channel.
Nowhere in the video did any of the players explicitly say whether they would be voting for Biden and Harris. But in a subsequent interview, McCollum said he had no problem disclosing whom he was voting for.
“Anybody who knows me knows I am not voting for Donald Trump,” McCollum said. “I will be voting for Sen. Harris and Joe Biden, 100 percent.
“Certain things I believe in and stand for is what I’ll speak up on behalf of. And I don’t really care what the consequences are. I don’t really care if people dislike me. This is how I feel. This is what I believe in. … I think from a business standpoint, if certain people can’t respect my thoughts and opinions on equality, my thoughts and opinions on how people can be treated, then I don’t want to do business with them anyway.”
“Why does a business leader with narrow life experience get to question the problems in our country but a cultural leader who faced incredible adversity does not?”
Others, like Pierce, prefer to focus on voting rights instead of endorsements.
“To support one person means, from a perception standpoint, you support everything that they’re speaking and standing for with regards to policy,” Pierce said. “I can help the city of Atlanta before the election, and I can help the city of Atlanta after the election. And that’s really my focus.”
In contrast, WNBA players have generally been more willing to vocalize strong political opinions or endorse specific candidates. This season, players on all 12 WNBA teams wore T-shirts endorsing Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democratic senatorial candidate in Georgia, to nationally televised games. Warnock is running against incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the Atlanta Dream co-owner who publicly rebuked the WNBA for dedicating its season to social justice causes, including the Black Lives Matter movement.
The WNBA players’ backing helped Warnock raise funds and codify Democratic support in the open primary, in which 21 candidates are vying for Loeffler’s seat.
“From the impact we had on Rev. Warnock’s campaign, to simply telling people to vote, I 100 percent believe we helped create change,” said Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird, who came up with the idea of WNBA players endorsing Warnock.
“Voting needs to become cool! Kids need to see their role models talk about voting and exercising their right to vote, regardless of political beliefs. The one thing about the WNBA, possibly different from the NBA, is our followers have always known what we are about. A large percentage of our fan base probably agrees with us politically. So I’m sure we motivated them to get out and vote. Any time you can do that, you are helping to create change.”
Josh Kalla, an assistant professor at Yale who specializes in political persuasion and decision-making, said mobilization can be just as important as endorsing specific candidates or issues.
“It’s not about trying to convince someone to care about racial equality and therefore vote for the Democrat candidate,” Kalla said. “It’s more about, ‘Hey, you already care about racial equality, yet you’re not voting. Voting is a good way to act on your values of racial equality.'”
FOR A MOVEMENT that began with athletes and coaches wanting to do more than simply tweet or talk about the importance of voting, the power of a tweet from LeBron James cannot be underestimated.
In May, Benson’s office began hearing from people in Detroit who’d received a robocall from a woman who introduced herself as Tamika Taylor from Project 1599 and suggested that police will use information from mail-in voting to track down voters, credit card companies will then use their personal information to collect outstanding debts and the CDC will use it to administer mandatory vaccines.
“Don’t be finessed into giving your private information to the man,” the call stated. “Stay home safe and beware of vote by mail.”
On Aug. 27, Benson tweeted that the robocall “was targeting Detroit voters using racially charged stereotypes and false information to deter voting by mail” and called it “an unconscionable, indefensible, blatant attempt to lie to citizens about their right to vote.”
James retweeted Benson and a More Than a Vote post, which stated: “They’ll use every trick in the book to try to stop us from voting but we won’t fall for the okey-doke. If you’re in Detroit, fight back and report mess like this to firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Soon, Benson’s office was flooded with calls and emails from people who had been targeted by the false robocall. Ultimately she ascertained that 85,000 calls had gone out around the country.
“People knew it was false. They knew they were being targeted. And we were able to quickly get the word out,” she said. “So there was no conversation about, ‘Is it really happening? Is it just hyperbole?’ Because we’ve got the backing of our most influential athletes backing us up and telling people what to do if they got a phone call.”
Michigan’s attorney general launched a multistate investigation, which led to felony charges being filed against two Republican operatives, Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl, on election law and conspiracy crimes that could bring up to 24 years in prison if they are convicted.
On Tuesday, a grand jury in Cleveland indicted Burkman and Wohl on eight counts of telecommunications fraud and seven counts of bribery in connection with 8,000 calls placed to residents in Cleveland and East Cleveland.
For a seasoned campaign operative like Jonae Wartel, that type of influence is game-changing. She helped launch More Than a Vote’s poll worker campaign with the Legal Defense Fund in mid-September. When James retweeted it, the effect was exponential. Over 40,000 people signed up to serve as poll workers in the six weeks since the campaign launched.
“You have LeBron saying signing up to be a poll worker is the most impactful thing that you can do,” she said. “Immediately I would see my friends tweeting, retweeting, sharing on Facebook. I saw one of my associates from college tweeted out that he was going to register to be a poll worker in North Carolina.”
Wartel has worked in three presidential campaign cycles, including this one. Normally the work is about organizing volunteers, making calls to voters, getting out into the field, knocking on doors, registering voters, helping them make a plan to vote.
It’s not glamorous work. It’s hard work.
And yet there was Lloyd Pierce standing out front of State Farm Arena, peeking out from behind his mask, greeting voters as they entered the building where he should be coaching NBA games.
Over 30,000 people have already voted at the Hawks’ home arena. Officials expect that number to double by Election Day. There are 20 more NBA arenas, concert venues and MLB ballparks being used as polling places this year.
Pierce said he’ll volunteer as a greeter once or twice more before Nov. 3.
“You know,” he said, “I went home that first day, and it was kind of an emotional experience. Just to see that power. That power of the right to vote being exercised.”