'Bigger than basketball': UT athletics organizes months-long effort in voter education
“You voted, coach?” the Tennessee freshman asked the Vols assistant coach, just as UT basketball director of operations Mary-Carter Eggert walked over to Springer carrying his absentee ballot from North Carolina.
Springer, who turned 18 in late September, told English he had never voted before.
“I told him his state is an important state,” English said. “It is a swing state. He asked what that means and I explained it to him and that there’s not many of them."
That brief explanation capped months of voter education and conversations spanning the emotions of seeing George Floyd's death on camera, social injustice protests and dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic that have taken place across Tennessee athletics.
Springer, like many of his teammates and fellow UT athletes who come to Knoxville from around the country, registered to vote for the first time in the 2020 presidential election.
To help these young voters, the Tennessee athletic department provided nonpartisan education on voter registration, the voting process, types of elections and more in the months leading to the Nov. 3 election.
“Our process has been regardless of who you vote for, your vote matters,” said Jess Wildfire, an executive director for student-athlete development at UT. “You have the ability to impact your community in this way and decisions that are made in your community by voting.”
At least 425 Tennessee athletes registered to vote through the student-athlete development office and many others registered independently, UT spokesperson Tom Satkowiak said. All eligible voters on the basketball, women's basketball, women’s tennis, volleyball and softball rosters registered to vote in the 2020 election, while many other sports approached roster-wide registration.
The NCAA mandated schools give athletes Nov. 3 off without practices or competitions.
“We just want them to exercise their rights as American citizens,” English said. “We are not asking or promoting our players to be activists if they do not want to. We want them to read, be educated and we want to be there for them and support them in whatever they may be feeling.
“We support our student-athletes in whatever they are feeling in these times.”
How UT provided nonpartisan education
Conversations with athletes in June sparked the voter education process from the student-athlete development office. Staffers organized and provided educational materials.
Wildfire said athletes were motivated to vote, but needed more information “because it can be a really convoluted process.” The department partnered with on-campus organizations, including the staff at the Howard J. Baker Center for Public Policy and the Student-Athletic Advisory Council, and local groups such as the Knoxville/Knox County League of Women Voters.
UT hosted a Zoom meeting to discuss voter registration, absentee ballots and the importance of local elections. The student-athlete development staff followed up with websites on how to register in each state.
“We focused on the importance of the civic duty of voting,” Wildfire said. “A lot of nonpartisan education happened over the summer before we got into the voter registration part. We wanted them to have a foundational knowledge of the voting process."
Tennessee athletes, including Vols football star Trey Smith, organized a community-wide march Aug. 29 to call attention to institutionalized racism. He joined with other athletes and coaches to demand UT administrators commit to taking action to combat racism on campus. Wildfire said the march led athletics staffers to continue chasing “another step” to enact change.
“After the march we had in August, their motivations ramped up,” Wildfire said. “It was what now? We had this march and it was amazing and it was so empowering to see all these people support us, but what is the next step to this? …
“They saw they have the ability to make an impact through voting.”
'The answer is vote'
For Tennessee basketball, the progression toward voter registration also began with conversations — but not conversations about politics.
English said dialogue centered on racism and systemic oppression as coaches talked with players about their feelings and emotions following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and many more.
“It has been about asking our young, male and — specifically in this case — our African-American players just simply how they are feeling,” English said. “How they are feeling when they watch a video like George Floyd? How they feel when they watch a video like Ahmaud Arbery.
“Those instances weren’t about politics at all. Those are two videos that, hopefully, every red-blooded American can feel the same amount of outrage when viewing a free American citizen be killed, his neck kneeled on for nine minutes and a free American citizen running through a neighborhood be mowed down.”
The conversation shifted in time to a logical question: What could players do to make a difference?
“The answer is vote,” English said. “Educate yourself to find which candidates’ views align with your beliefs. It is simply get registered and vote and encourage your friend group to vote. This thing is bigger than basketball.”
Wildfire came to Pratt Pavilion after a Tennessee basketball practice on Sept. 22 — National Voter Registration Day — to help all eligible voters get registered.
The months of work succeeded.
“We 100 percent want those guys to be part of the political process in this country and exercise their right to vote,” English said. “We got that done.”
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.