Joe Kennedy saw what we all saw in May, those horrifying 8 minutes, 46 seconds, the knee on George Floyd’s neck as he pleaded, in vain, for his life. It was not a mental picture that would be discarded, possibly ever. And when it was time to speak again with the basketball players at Holy Cross University, because that’s his job as an assistant to head coach Brett Nelson, they made it obvious how they had been affected.
They expressed a desire to make a difference in this environment.
“And voting came up a lot: We’ve got to vote. We’ve got to vote,” Kennedy told Sporting News. “And that really caught my ear. I thought about what they were saying, young men who would be first-time voters. … That’s one thing that I know. I lived in that world. How can I help get the message out there about how important it is to vote?”
Joe is not one of those Kennedys. His family business was basketball. His father, Pat, won 499 games and made 14 NCAA Tournaments as head coach at five Division I schools, including Florida State and DePaul. But when Joe finished his four years as a walk-on guard at Northwestern in 2007, he got the opportunity to join the Barack Obama campaign for two years. And what did he do? Like so many others, he helped get out the vote. (He later spent two years working in the White House in the Office of Public Engagement.)
“We talked a lot as a staff,” Kennedy said, “then I got on the phone and talked to some other coaches, talked to a few of my friends who are still in the political world, and then ultimately stumbled into what Coach Reveno was starting to really push out there on social media.”
Eric Reveno does not have that same political background, but he felt the same anguish from his players through the same medium: team meetings, conducted online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, among the Georgia Tech basketball team.
“Everyone went around and described a couple of their emotions they were feeling, and then it got to me, and it was hard,” Reveno told SN. “There were all these guys with heavy hearts describing what they’re feeling. Working in college, normally you’re around optimism and hope, and there was just this stuff they were having to deal with.
“I got emotional. I said, ‘This is a 54-year-old white guy, the fact we haven’t made this a better place to hand off, from when I was in college … we’re supposed to move the needle along. I promised: I will do better as an educator, as a citizen. Right after I spoke, Malachi Rice, a player on our team, said he had a problem with guys that protest and have all these complaints but then don’t vote. And it really hit me.”
The next morning, Reveno began to think about what he’d done in more than two decades in education — as an assistant at Stanford, head coach at Portland and now associate head coach at Georgia Tech — regarding the importance of voting. He’s spoken with players about health, nutrition, financial management.
“It’s not like I just teach guys how to shoot,” he said.
And so he turned to Twitter, of course.
“We need to make the federal election day, November 3, 2020 a NCAA mandatory ‘off’ day. Legislate to support student-athlete participation.”
That was the tweet, on June 2. He tagged the NCAA and National Association of Basketball Coaches accounts. The response was immediate, and overwhelming. (And, in some cases, because it’s Twitter, needlessly skeptical. Like the one who said, “Good luck” getting football to go along.) Reveno sent 20 subsequent tweets on that day, mostly responding to support and criticism.
Within three days, there was a hashtag marking the campaign — #AllVoteNoPlay — and Reveno had sent out nearly 100 tweets on the subject, including appreciation to Yale athletics and the basketball programs at Gonzaga, Marquette and Houston, each of whom pledged to make Nov. 3 a mandatory day off from athletic activities. A formal petition was launched requesting that the NCAA make it a universal rule. By June 12, the NCAA announced that it was encouraging its 1,100 member schools to follow this course.
Of course, all this occurred in more optimistic times, when it seemed likely that athletic activities would be taking place. There may or may not be training going on among those fall and two-semester sports that have been postponed by various conferences. It matters, but in this context it maybe doesn’t. The important thing is the momentum generated by this grassroots movement, which was underscored Thursday when the NABC introduced the Coaches’ Voter Engagement Playbook, a 12-page document offering ideas and guidelines.
Reveno and Kennedy are two of seven NABC members leading the Coaches Voter Education Task Force, along with head coaches Benjy Taylor of Tuskegee University, Patrick Crarey of Washington Adventist and Ryan Marks of St. Francis (Ill.), and assistants Marlon Stewart of Oregon State and Mike Burns of Boise State.
When Reveno ran his idea past Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner, it was greeted with great enthusiasm. Pastner took it onto a call with ACC head coaches, and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski strongly endorsed and suggested involving the NABC. When Craig Robinson was hired in July as the organization’s new executive director, he helped continue the movement’s advance. Robinson is Obama’s brother-in-law, and was an assistant coach at Northwestern when Kennedy played there.
“It started on a Tuesday afternoon, and by Wednesday afternoon Georgia Tech, without much more discussion from me, announced it was taking the day off,” Reveno said, emphasizing that football coach Geoff Collins eagerly embraced the idea. “I sort of lit a match, and then it got local fire with Georgia Tech. The NABC adopted it two days later, and then a week later the NCAA was recommending it. So it just really took off.
“I’ve got a buddy in California. Any time he sees a company say they’re going to take Election Day off, he credits me.”
In 2016, there were 100 million eligible voters of all ages who did not turn out. Voters in the youngest group, though, have the poorest participation rates in any age category. In the 2016 election, slightly more than 40 percent of eligible voters in the 18-29 age group cast their ballots, compared with nearly 70 percent in the 45-59 group.
We have seen legions of young people conduct peaceful protests in cities across America since Floyd’s death, which resulted in second-degree murder charges against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The coaches want those young people — and, closer to home, their athletes — to remember that voting makes a powerful statement, as well.
“We’ve got to get people registered, providing information to student-athletes, to teams and athletic departments,” Kennedy said. “All the conversations I’ve had with coaches, when the idea of registration comes up, voter education, coaches have been really energetic about wanting to have those conversations with their teams, and providing a platform for teams to discuss things, get information and be active.
“Voting should be a non-partisan issue. It is as fundamental to being an American as anything. We have had, at other times in our history, groups of people who have marched and fought — and some have died — just to get the right to vote. Whether it’s the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, this has been a very, very emotional, passionate, serious issue long before 2020 came. But as evidenced by the data and the numbers, there’s still a lot we’ve got to do to get people to vote.”
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