Teams in the National Basketball Association, the American pro sports league long most vocal on social justice issues, are stepping up their civic participation, as three have now volunteered their facilities to serve as voting sites amid the pandemic.
The development comes as local election officials, especially those in major metropolitan areas, frantically search for places that are centrally located and big enough to allow voters to social distance while waiting in line and casting their ballots.
And the offers come as many of the NBA's mostly African-American players have upped their involvement in social causes following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. Last month, for instance, superstar LeBron James announced a new organization aimed at protecting Black citizens' voting rights.
The group, More Than A Vote, has praised the NBA franchises volunteering their spaces, while also egging on others with a hoops-like challenge: "Who's got next?"
"The easiest way to keep us from changing anything is to keep us from voting," James tweeted last month, along with a Black Lives Matter hashtag.
The three teams that have so far offered their spaces — the Atlanta Hawks, the Detroit Pistons and the Milwaukee Bucks — are located in presidential battleground states. More than a third of the league's teams are in states that could help determine the presidential contest this fall.
Partners in a 'historic moment'
The Hawks were the first to step up, on Monday, committing State Farm Arena as an early voting site for Georgia's elections in August and November.
"We want people to exercise their right and we want to be a part of helping them do so," Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce told NPR.
He said that the league's growing political voice is linked to the same things driving activism and protests across the country. More than 80% of the NBA's players are people of color.
"All of these things are starting to intertwine," Pierce said. "Someone may talk about being a Black player or a Black person in America. Then it gets intertwined in how it affects them politically, how it affects them economically, how it affects them via education. And so, how can you not speak on this?"
The Hawks' facility will be configured to hold hundreds of ballot-marking devices spaced throughout the arena floor, and hundreds of its staffers will be trained as poll workers, as Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler reported.
The Pistons and Bucks soon followed suit.
The Pistons on Wednesday said they've offered their training facility and headquarters as a voting center for November's election. And Alex Lasry, the Bucks' senior vice president, said on Twitter he's "excited to partner with [More Than A Vote] to make Fiserv Forum available as a potential voting site."
"We just want to continue to do what we can to make sure that people can safely exercise their right to vote," Lasry added to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "If that means that we serve as a voter registration place, great. If it means that we can be a polling place, great."
The three teams have also outlined a number of efforts, such as public service announcements from players and registration events, to try to boost voter awareness and participation. In addition, the Pistons franchise has made Aug. 4, the date of Michigan's statewide primaries, and Nov. 3 paid days off for its staff.
"This is really a historic moment for democracy and we have a unique role that sports facilities and teams can play in being partners for civic engagement this year," said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
The Bucks' Lasry is also the finance chair of the Milwaukee 2020 Host Committee, the nonprofit group behind the Democratic National Convention there. Ironically, due to the coronavirus, and with fewer people set to attend the party's assembly in person, convention-planners announced that all proceedings will move from the larger Fiserv Forum to the smaller Wisconsin Center, a Milwaukee convention center.
James' nonprofit voting group cannot advocate for a specific candidate. But he has endorsed Democrats in the past, and repeatedly criticized President Trump.
A glaring need for space
The efforts to create larger voting venues follow challenging elections held in recent months, during the pandemic.
Georgia's presidential primary, last month, had long lines and voting machine issues. Earlier, Wisconsin's April primary saw long, socially distanced lines as polling places were consolidated after thousands of poll workers dropped out.
Milwaukee had just five ballot sites open, compared with about 180 normally.
In Kentucky's primaries last week, polling places in the state's biggest cities were consolidated into giant voting centers in arenas, expo centers and stadiums. One such venue: Kroger Field, the home field for the University of Kentucky's football team.
Josh Douglas, an election law professor at the university, said the plan worked well outside of a few hiccups.
He said utilizing stadium employees means election officials can allocate poll workers to other voting sites.
"Not only do [these venues like arenas] have the size capacity, but theoretically they have workers who know the space and if we can get them trained, as long as they are younger and not as high risk, that allows election officials to have more flexibility in the number of polling sites they can open," Douglas said.
Renee Montgomery, a WNBA player for the Atlanta Dream, which also plays at the State Farm Arena, is sitting out the shortened season to focus on social issues and voter outreach. In an interview with NPR, she said she was thrilled about the decision to offer her home court up to voters, specifically because it's easy to get to on public transportation in Atlanta.
More broadly, she said the trend of basketball players being more involved in politics isn't a short-term one, due to the pandemic or the protests. She expects it to continue past 2020, because their message is resonating.
"Athletes are going to feel that their voice matters," she said. "A lot of times athletes were timid about speaking out because if the team doesn't like it, because the corporate sponsors don't like it, and then you're in trouble. Well that excuse can't really be there anymore."
SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
Over the past month, basketball players, coaches and teams have been the people in sports speaking out the loudest about social justice. But now they're stepping that up a notch. Multiple franchises have volunteered their facilities to serve as polling places for elections this fall. NPR's Miles Parks has more.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Renee Montgomery is well-acquainted with Atlanta's State Farm Arena. It's where her WNBA team, the Atlanta Dream, play their home games.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Three-pointer for Renee Montgomery - pops it up and they have about four-point play opportunity. Scoops it to Montgomery - seven. Yes. Boy, is she dialed in or what?
PARKS: This fall, however, she won't be using the arena. Voters will.
RENEE MONTGOMERY: You know, there was a problem there and a need there.
PARKS: With four months left to go until the election, officials across the U.S. are frantically searching for places that are centrally located and big enough to allow voters to socially distance. Three NBA teams - Atlanta, Detroit and Milwaukee - stepped up this week to volunteer their spaces. The arenas could be game changers for a number of reasons. Montgomery noted that Atlanta's transit system runs directly to her team's home court.
MONTGOMERY: People can't get to the polls. So when you talk about arenas and you talk about different places like that, well, now you have public transit that can get there.
PARKS: In Atlanta, hundreds of stadium staff will also be trained as poll workers, which could solve another voting problem that the pandemic has created.
JOSH DOUGLAS: You can only have so many polling sites as you have people to work them.
PARKS: That's Josh Douglas, an election law professor at the University of Kentucky. Election officials in Lexington successfully turned that school's football stadium into a voting center for the state's primary last week. Douglas said training stadium employees means election officials can allocate poll workers to other voting sites.
DOUGLAS: Not only do they have the size capacities, but theoretically, they have workers who know the space. And if we can get them trained, as long as they're - you know, they're younger and healthy and not as high-risk, that allows election officials to have more flexibility in the number of polling sites they can open.
PARKS: LeBron James' new voter outreach organization, More Than A Vote, has been big in pushing for the idea. And overall, the initiative represents another step in basketball's growing influence in politics. More than 80% of the NBA's players are people of color. Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said the league's growing political voice is linked to the activism happening elsewhere in the country.
LLOYD PIERCE: All of these things are starting to intertwine. Someone may talk about being a Black player or a Black person in America. Then it gets intertwined with how it affects them politically, how it affects them economically, how it affects them via education. And so how can you not speak on this?
PARKS: I asked Montgomery, the Atlanta Dream player, about whether she thought this year's focus on politics and basketball would be temporary, either driven by the pandemic or the protests or even President Trump. She said no. She's planning to sit out the shortened WNBA schedule this year to focus on highlighting social issues and working on voter outreach. She expects this to be the new normal in sports.
MONTGOMERY: Athletes are going to feel that their voice matters. A lot of times, athletes were timid about speaking out because if you speak out and the team doesn't like it, because the corporate sponsors don't like it, now you're in trouble. Well, that excuse can't really be there anymore.
PARKS: Pierce said the same thing - that basketball players will stay vocal even after 2020. When you give someone a platform, he said, you can't just take it away.
Miles Parks, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.