US election: Sport’s unprecedented impact as voters go to the polls

The US presidential election has been played out against a sporting backdrop, with some of the biggest stars taking active positions to shape the country’s future.

From those wanting to increase turnout to those campaigning for a candidate, this is the story of an election like no other in the country’s history.

The mantra of keeping politics and sport apart has not been a feature in the build-up to this election, rather, sport and politics – in the United States at least – appear to have made very comfortable bed fellows.

Sportspeople have emerged as activists and have been at the forefront of the drive to get people to the polls, with the likes of the NFL and the NBA supporting player-led efforts.

Sky Sports NFL pundit Jeff Reinebold hopes other sports and leagues across the world – including the Premier League – follow suit by empowering players in the same way.

“In the past, the NFL and professional sports in general, have tried to steer away from becoming involved in political things,” he said.

“There’s an economic reason for that but I think what has happened, and what I hope has happened, is that now the NFL sees that it has a responsibility to the society that buys the tickets, that buys the jerseys, and that as an organisation they have a civic responsibility to speak out.

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“I think that they have empowered their players to take their responsibility to speak out. This is a very positive step and it’s one that I hope will be followed around the world by the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, by all of the influential governing bodies of sport.

“Sport and politics are intertwined, you can’t separate them.”

When Colin Kaepernick knelt on the sidelines during the national anthem in 2016 in protest against social and racial injustice in America, it caused a storm, opinion became divided, and the political fallout began.

Despite Kaepernick also pledging $1m (£773,000) to organisations who support his aims, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s actions were criticised in some quarters, yet he stuck true to his conviction, continuing to kneel, joined by other players.

The following year, when President Donald Trump called on team owners to “fire” players who “disrespect” the flag, his response was met with more than 200 players from across the NFL kneeling, sitting or raising their fist during the national anthem.

Mr Trump later said his dislike for the protests had “nothing to do with race or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag”.

Colin Kaepernick (centre) has not played in the NFL since 2016 when he gained widespread attention for 'taking a knee'
Image:Colin Kaepernick (centre) has not played in the NFL since 2016 when he gained widespread attention for ‘taking a knee’

The NFL banned kneeling on the sidelines during the anthem in 2018, but following the death of George Floyd in police custody, Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted the league was wrong not to listen to its players earlier, insisting the league wanted to “encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest”.

President Trump responded to the change in the NFL’s stance by posting on Twitter: “Could it be even remotely possible that in Roger Goodell’s rather interesting statement of peace and reconciliation, he was intimating that it would now be O.K. for the players to KNEEL, or not to stand, for the National Anthem, thereby disrespecting our Country & our Flag?”

The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 25, 2017

The new season has since started and while some players have remained on the field standing for the anthem, some have taken a knee, and others have chosen to remain in the locker room.

NFL Votes

The NFL Votes campaign was launched in August, a league-wide initiative designed to support and encourage the voting and civic engagement efforts of fans, current and former players, and clubs.

Some 90% of active NFL players are now registered to vote and all team facilities across the league will be closed on election day with half of the teams using their stadiums or facilities for election-related activities.

Seattle’s Shaquem and Shaquill Griffin, Atlanta’s Todd Gurley and San Francisco’s George Kittle are among the players that have participated in public service announcements, while all NFL players and staff have received comprehensive voter education.

Philadelphia Eagles safety Rodney McLeod and his wife, Erika, have developed the My Voice My Vote initiative in partnership with their Change Our Future Foundation to support and encourage civic engagement and voting in the city.

The non-partisan campaign has focused on voter activation, education, and community mobilisation, and election day initiatives include providing free shuttle services to polling locations in North Philadelphia and supporting local businesses by providing meals to election volunteers.

A detail of "Vote" painted in the endzone prior to the game between the Detroit Lions and the Indianapolis.
Image:‘Vote’ painted in the endzone prior to the game between the Detroit Lions and the Indianapolis Colts

“We want to show a little love to the poll workers for their commitment and the amazing work they are doing,” he said.

“Without them, none of this will be possible, so we’ve decided to support some small businesses in the local area and be able to hand out meals and beverages, coffee and tea, to make the time a little more light-hearted and go by a little easier for them.”

Reinebold said this type of direct player activism within local communities could become part of the new normal.

“We’ve had these times before but they’ve been isolated incidents and there’s never been a governing body like the NFL come out and endorse – not a political stance – but just endorse being involved in the process, by speaking your mind,” he said.

“You see the reality of it is, professional athletes have a much greater opportunity to bring about change because their voice is listened to by the multitudes.

“And I think that is one of the things that is really good about what has happened. These athletes are standing up and they are saying no more and I hope it begins a process where athletes speak out on all kinds of issues that are keeping us from being the society that we all want to be.”

Former coach Rob Ryan, who won two Super Bowls as New England Patriots linebackers’ coach under Bill Belichick, has welcomed the NFL’s and the players’ efforts in trying to get Americans out to vote.

He told Sky Sports News: “I think it’s not just important to the sport, it’s important for America. This is why our country, the US was formed. I mean to have a right to vote, it’s a privilege and all these non-voters, [what seems like] half of America doesn’t vote, it’s ridiculous.

“Hopefully, what the players have done is get people to form their own opinion, to get educated, to make a choice that they understand is in their best interests, and I think that’s what’s so important.

“People listen, and the NFL is the most entertaining sport there is. The players are heroes for everyone, so people are going to listen. Hopefully they get educated, find out more about the candidates and go out and make a great vote. I think it’s important that the NFL did get involved, I think it’s great.”

NBA: From boycott to voters turning out

Lloyd Pierce of the Atlanta Hawks is not your typical NBA coach. At 8am on 12 October, he began work as an election volunteer at the team’s State Farm Arena, an experience he told Sky Sports News was “incredibly emotional”.

It was the first day of early voting for the US election and as thousands turned up to an arena – normally used to seat 21,000 basketball fans – most voters did not recognise him.

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 12: Voters line up inside of State Farm Arena, Georgia's largest early voting location, for the first day of early voting in the General Election on October 12, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Early voting in Georgia runs October 12-30. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
Image:Voters line up inside State Farm Arena, Georgia’s largest early voting location, on the first day of early voting

Pierce, who was involved in the plans to get the venue ready, talked to voters and helped to usher them to the right areas. The venue was open for 19 days with early voting helping tens of thousands of people to cast their ballot in the key battleground state of Georgia, which could be pivotal in the race to the White House.

From coaching on the sidelines to speaking at rallies, the Hawks head coach is using his fame and position to promote social justice and highlight the power of the vote.

“We have an ability to influence in general, but also inspire the younger generation of voters that have never voted or participated in an election,” he told Sky Sports News.

“I think you saw the surprise in our players because we have an influx of new young players. My team is filled with 21, 22, 23-year-olds, so some of them weren’t even eligible to vote last time we had our 2016 election.”

The NBA Players’ Association says 20% of players voted in the 2016 US election. This time voter registration stands at 96%, and more than 20 teams have 100% registration.

“When our players show their ability and willingness to be educated about the election and the importance of it, they also influence their fans and support systems,” Pierce added.

“And they have the greatest fan and support systems in the world in terms of how many followers they have on their social media campaigns and how they can communicate to those followers and those fans and supporters. This happens to be a really important time to engage with them and to encourage them to participate as well.”

Pierce is helped by the leadership at the franchise. Its ownership group, led by principal owner Tony Ressler, pledged $40m (£31m) towards bolstering the economic empowerment of Atlanta’s minority communities.

Hawks chief executive Steve Koonin said the summer of protests in American cities against racial inequality and police brutality is where the idea of trying to make it easier for citizens to vote came from.

“Right in the nexus of the protests, I’m watching all the young people and the energy,” he told nba.com

“And I wanted to say that I understand what you’re protesting but I don’t know what could come of it because there was no contemplation of what the actions would be. I’m a big fan of peaceful demonstration, I think it’s incredibly important. Then it dawned on me that the only way to make change is to vote.”

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Many of the NBA-led changes came after athletes protested against racial injustice following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. The Milwaukee Bucks decided to boycott Game 5 of their playoff against Orlando Magic in protest.

No professional sports team in America had ever refused to play a game in such circumstances. Two other playoff games scheduled for that night were also cancelled, and three more the following day.

Women’s NBA, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League and Major League Soccer games were all postponed following player-led actions.

Part of the agreement that allowed the NBA season to resume included measures related to the election.

Calling all my North Carolina residents….the stakes are so high. We need you. Register. Vote! Use your voice and get involved. Check https://t.co/2q2vof3Wfn to get all the info you need. Make a plan! Do it now! #BidenHarris2020#vote#NC#iwillvote#election2020pic.twitter.com/WC5b7H5wQY

— Stephen Curry (@StephenCurry30) October 7, 2020

The NBA and the Players Association agreed that in cities where teams owned and controlled their venues they could use their facilities to help people vote in person. In places like Atlanta, this has helped to reduce queues and make it easier for people to vote.

The governing body and players also agreed to establish a “social justice coalition” to focus on “increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement, and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform”. The NBA also committed to advertising spots in each playoff game to promoting greater civic engagement and raise awareness around voter access and opportunity.

The sport’s biggest star, four-time NBA champion LeBron James spearheads a voting rights organisation called More Than A Voteaimed at encouraging African Americans to cast their ballots.

The campaign has also helped to recruit over 40,000 poll workers due to a shortage of volunteers because of the coronavirus pandemic, and also to protect the older population from having to work because of the higher risk.

Its ambitions do not stop there. The campaign also aims to provide advice to potential voters on misinformation online.

Those involved with More Than A Vote include fellow NBA All-Star Trae Youg, WNBA star Skylar Diggins-Smith, Kansas City Chief’s quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and 2017 US Open tennis champion Sloane Stephens.

In the build up to the election, the initiative has worked alongside Michelle Obama’s similar When We All Vote, with the former first lady adding the plan was to “build momentum and excitement around voting early”.

Homecourt!!! Change isn’t made sitting on the sidelines 🙏🏾✊🏾👑@morethanavote#BlackLivesMatterhttps://t.co/1kRZsA2Yrs

— LeBron James (@KingJames) August 29, 2020

Like the NFL, the NBA has also been the subject of Mr Trump’s attention, with the president describing the organisation as “highly political”, adding ratings are “way down”.

In response to the US leader saying he would not watch games because of kneeling before games, LA Lakers star LeBron said the basketball community would not be “sad”.

LeBron recently told the New York Timeshe would not engage in arguments with Mr Trump, saying he would not “go back and forth with anybody” on Twitter.

Trump tries to get college football return

In 2016, President Trump won the states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – all of which have Big Ten college football teams. It was the first time the Democrats had lost there in almost 30 years.

First Lady Melania Trump and U.S. President Donald Trump wave prior to the College Football Playoff National Championship game between the Clemson Tigers and the LSU Tigers at Mercedes Benz Superdome on January 13, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana
Image:Mr Trump and the first lady at the College Football Playoff National Championship game between the Clemson Tigers and the LSU Tigers in January

When college football was suspended for the autumn season because of the pandemic, Mr Trump intervened.

In September, he called the Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, with both saying they had a “productive” telephone conversation.

Just over two weeks later, the news was confirmed that the Big Ten had reversed its decision not to play its season.

The president tweeted about the return, saying it was great news, adding: “It is my great honour to have helped!!!”

Great News: BIG TEN FOOTBALL IS BACK. All teams to participate. Thank you to the players, coaches, parents, and all school representatives. Have a FANTASTIC SEASON! It is my great honor to have helped!!!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 16, 2020

College teams are often significant economic drivers for the regions in which they are located, and one survey claimed 53% of college football fans credited the president with the return of Big Ten football, which kicked off last month.

Rapinoe, Trump and White House invitation

World Cup winner Megan Rapinoe was one of the first athletes to follow Kaepernick’s lead in 2016 by kneeling during the anthem in protest.

In response, the United States Soccer Federation adopted a policy that required players to stand during the anthem.

 Megan Rapinoe #15 kneels during the National Anthem prior to the match between the United States and the Netherlands at Georgia Dome on September 18, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia
Image:Megan Rapinoe kneels during the National Anthem before a match in 2016

But, after widespread protests over the death of George Floyd, there was a U-turn from the federation, who overturned the ban on US footballers kneeling during the anthem, apologising to its players.

Republican congressman Matt Gaetz was critical of that decision, tweeting: “I’d rather the US not have a soccer team than have a soccer team that won’t stand for the National Anthem. You shouldn’t get to play under our flag as our national team if you won’t stand when it is raised.”

Trump retweeted that message before adding: “I won’t be watching much anymore!” He then posted: “And it looks like the NFL is heading in that direction also, but not with me watching!”

Rapinoe is no stranger to activism and made headlines at the 2019 World Cup when she said she would not visit the White House if the US Women’s National Team went on to win the tournament. President Trump accused her of “disrespect”.

A keen golfer, President Trump’s re-election has also split opinion among some of the top golfers.

Eighteen-time major winner Jack Nicklaus voted for Mr Trump and gave a high-profile endorsement a week before the election. He later said he knew it would “cause him some grief”.

Four-time major winner Rory McIlroy played golf with the president in 2017, but said it was after an invitation from the leader and was not an endorsement.

This year McIlroy criticised the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and added that he would not play golf with Mr Trump again.

Even the president awarding Tiger Woods the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour, was open to criticism from his opponents.

U.S. President Donald Trump gives professional golfer and business partner Tiger Woods the Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House May 06, 2019 in Washington, DC. Trump announced he would give the nation’s highest civilian honor to Woods, 43, in honor of his Masters victory last month
Image:Trump gives golfer and business partner Tiger Woods the Medal of Freedom in May 2019

Woods received the award at the White House last year, a month after winning The Masters to clinch his 15th major.

Woods knew Mr Trump before he entered the White House and the fact the pair are also business partners did lead to some criticism.

Who will emerge as the next leader of the free world?

Sky News election Donald Trump Joe Biden

Donald Trump and Joe Biden have both won the support of high-profile sports stars in this election campaign.

By Monday evening over 96 million Americans had voted early in the election. With hours to go until the polls close, one thing is clear, never before has an election has been played out against a sporting backdrop quite like this.

What difference will it make when America decides?

Follow all the US election results live on Tuesday 3 November from 10pm on Sky News TV, app and skynews.com

Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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