In a year with so few positive developments, here is one sports can claim: The long-overdue burial of the hollow notion that sports figures and organizations should avoid politics and social issues and, ahem, “stick to sports.”
The men and women who earn a living by entertaining us disregarded that unsolicited advice in 2020, and America is immensely better for it.
Sports likely played a considerable role in the outcome of the most consequential presidential election in at least 56 years. The NBA and WNBA, in particular, fought and succeeded in making significant strides, long overdue, toward an actual democracy.
“The world of sports has to stop and recognize that the two do coexist,” said Cari Champion, a panelist this week on “Race in America: A Candid Conversation,” Friday night.
“You cannot ask these players to get out on the field or on the court and play for you and not have an opinion about what's going on in society, or in their own communities. A lot of these kids come from nothing and they’ve seen what it's like. They know what it's like to experience police brutality or lose a loved one to unnecessary gun violence. Or whatever the case may be. They've all seen. It’s not that far removed; it was just the other day.”
The question in the approach to the election centered largely on participation. There were voter-registration drives in most parts of the country but certainly all metropolitan areas. The NBA cranked up in the spring and didn’t stop until the night of the election.
Champion, the former host of ESPN’s “First Take” and now a co-host, with Jemele Hill, of “Stick to Sports” on Vice TV, was joined on the panel by Elsa Collins, a voting advocate and social-impact consultant who also happens to be married to Warriors assistant coach Jarron Collins.
Both panelists took note of the NBA’s impact, from players and coaches urging citizens to vote to 23 franchises utilizing their facilities as polling sites or ballot-drop locations – or both. There is little doubt that this participation made voting more accessible.
The effect, already facing the threat of legal action, is a change in president, from the polarizing Donald Trump to former vice president Joe Biden, who already vows to govern the nation as a whole.
“It can't be underscored enough how crucial the NBA, the coaches, the players and the organizations were in really pushing this issue forward,” Collins said, “They said, ‘We're going to stand behind our players and our league.’ Saying that this is the most important thing that we can be doing, which is being participants in our democracy, is what makes America great.
“I'm so proud to be part of the NBA family. For me, they've really been the leaders. They've been at the forefront of trying to support their players to use their voices.”
Results indicate that those voting in Philadelphia, where the 76ers hosted a voting site, tipped Pennsylvania toward Biden. That those voting Detroit, where the Pistons hosted a voting site, put Michigan in the Biden column. That those in Milwaukee, where the Bucks were active in pushing the vote despite local election officials denying the use of Fiserv Forum as an early-voting center, gave Biden the edge in Wisconsin.
Most surprisingly, perhaps, was Biden’s comeback in Georgia, engineered through the relentless registration work of Stacey Abrams. Though votes still were being counted late Friday afternoon, heavy participation in greater Atlanta, where the Hawks were aggressive in registering and accepting ballots, was a major factor in putting the former vice president in the lead.
The players and coaches were heard. Loud and clear. Organizations promised an effort, and they delivered.
“I also saw individual people, like LeBron (James), who has ‘More than a Vote.’ Steph Curry was having his conversations. Chris Paul was on a bus in North Carolina. You had individual players and coaches, like (Hawks coach) Lloyd Pierce like Steve (Kerr), who were really saying, ‘What can I do? I'll do it all. I’ll say yes to everything because there's nothing more important – nothing, that is more important than our democracy.’
“We say every year that winning a championship is most important thing. This year, the championship was the election.”
Never in the history of this nation has sports been more influential to an election. Never in the history of this nation have the circumstances been so unique.
It must be considered that sports figures are people and, ultimately, people are more important than games. To stick to sports is, in many ways, avoidance of citizenship.
“It's only when that opinion makes people uncomfortable,” Champion says. “And it's been such a joke because sports is (political) in every aspect. It’s where we sing the national anthem. We have a flag. Or, for the Super Bowl, they have a flyover. There are so many opportunities where you see ‘patriotism’ in a political sense, if you will, in sports.
“When they say, ‘Stick to sports,’ it’s truly for the Black athletes who are doing more than just being an athlete.”