August 15, 2020 

Women’s basketball teams in D.C. look to boost voter turnout

Mystics, several DI teams launch efforts to get out the vote

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Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud leads the home crowd in “MVP” chants for teammate Elena Delle Donne after a game on September 8, 2019. Delle Donne wound up winning 41 of 43 first-place votes. Photo credit: Domenic Allegra

Since George Floyd’s death at the hands of police on May 25, an unprecedented number of athletes at all levels have used their voices to demand justice.

“That was a wake-up call for me personally,” Washington Mystics forward Myisha Hines-Allen told The Next in June. She organized a march, led by the Mystics and the Washington Wizards, to honor people who have been killed by police. “It was just something that I felt like needed to be done to show the community that we are not just athletes, but people as well,” she explained.

Other ways that athletes and teams have pushed for change include donating to organizations working for social justice, supporting Black- and minority-owned businesses in their communities, and advocating for policy change at all levels of government. In Washington, D.C.—the seat of so much power and influence in this country—there has been a groundswell of support from women’s basketball players and teams for voter registration and education initiatives. The goal is to allow everyone to speak out by casting a ballot on Election Day and to ensure that the people in power represent everyone’s interests.

From the Washington Mystics to the Howard Bison to the Maryland Terrapins, here is what D.C.-area teams have planned leading up to November 3.

Washington Mystics

Monumental Sports & Entertainment (MSE), the organization that owns the Mystics along with the Washington Wizards and Capitals, kicked off a partnership with the nonprofit When We All Vote on July 26, 100 days before Election Day. The partnership involves “a series of activities to consistently stress the importance of voting … and push turnout around election days.”

“It’s something that was, in a sense, player-led,” guard Ariel Atkins said a few days before the initiative launched. “I think [MSE has] done a really good job of listening to us and helping us with the things that we want to implement … So I’m really excited for it, and I’m excited to see what’s gonna come from it.”

As part of the initiative, When We All Vote designed team-branded voter registration portals for the Mystics, Wizards, and Capitals to promote. The Mystics’ portal looks like this:

Natasha Cloud, who is sitting out this season to focus on social justice issues, recently discussed the importance of MSE’s voter registration efforts on a Wizards television broadcast. “One of the low-hanging fruits that we can have immediate impact on is voting, and not only federally, but most importantly, state and locally,” Cloud said. “So we’re trying to do what we can do to help register, to help educate our communities, and to help really take our voices and our power back, and that starts with our vote.”

Atkins, Cloud, and center LaToya Sanders all appeared alongside several Wizards players in a public service announcement about the need to register to vote:

Mystics players connected this voter registration effort to other social justice goals they are working toward as a team. Guard/forward Aerial Powers noted that the team’s motto this season is “Apply Pressure,” both on and off the court. Off the court, that means pushing people “[to] do the right things, and something as simple as get out and register to vote.” Guard Essence Carson added that social injustice must be addressed “from all angles,” including voter registration as well as the WNBA’s season-long Say Her Name campaign.

“We’re going to have to have many solutions; there isn’t one solution that’s going to fix everything,” Carson said. “… [It] took a long time for us to get to where we are as far as where social injustice is. Of course, it’s existed for a very long time, but it’s gonna take a long time to break that down. And it [is] going to take many people to get together and act as one and continuously and consistently and persistently attack this.”

Other strategies that MSE will use to promote voting include training staff to be poll workers, giving all employees a paid day off on Election Day, and working with the DC Board of Elections and the mayor’s office to try to use Capital One Arena—which was the Mystics’ home through the 2018 season—as a polling place on Election Day. On August 12, the Mystics, Wizards, and Washington Spirit also joined the “Rally the Vote” coalition of 20 professional sports teams  around the country that have committed to increasing voter registration and turnout.

Maryland women’s basketball

A few months ago, athletic director Damon Evans hosted a voluntary Zoom call for staff members to share their feelings or suggest actions to take in response to Floyd’s death.

“There were a lot of thoughts that came out of that meeting because at that point we were all kind of overwhelmed,” Libby Ellis, the director of basketball operations for the women’s basketball team, told The Next. But multiple people identified voter participation as something that the country as a whole and student-athletes specifically can do better, and the group scheduled a follow-up call for anyone interested to create an action plan focused on voting.

The result was VoTERP, an initiative announced on July 23 that will give Maryland student-athletes and staff non-partisan information to help them become more informed and, ultimately, vote. (“Terp” is a shortened version of the teams’ nickname, the Terrapins.) The VoTERP committee includes about 30 staff members as well as student-athletes from the women’s soccer, softball, and cross country and track and field teams. Four women’s basketball staff members are involved: Ellis, assistant coaches Karen Blair and Lindsey Spann, and program manager Jennifer Carson Elkonoh.

“This is, to me, one of the many things that we can do outside of just playing sports,” Evans told The Washington Post. “This is an opportunity to help develop young people.”

The committee meets every few weeks, and there are also subcommittees for education, activation, and branding that meet weekly. In a survey last month of Maryland student-athletes, VoTERP found that about three in four student-athletes who are U.S. citizens were registered to vote, but a common reason student-athletes hadn’t registered was because they did not know how. In addition, student-athletes were particularly interested in learning more about politics and about how to vote absentee or by mail.

Initially, the women’s basketball staff primarily shared information about VoTERP with their players via Zoom, as only about half of the players were on campus at the end of July. But Ellis was impressed with how “excited and engaged” the players were, noting that at least one player led protests in her home state this summer. “It’s been really interesting to see our staff and our student-athletes really make this a priority all at the same time,” Ellis said.

VoTERP is also trying to be inclusive of international student-athletes by creating opportunities for everyone to learn about the democratic process and volunteer at polling sites or with registration efforts if they choose. According to Ellis, many international players want to get involved because “they’re seeing some of the, maybe, tarnished spots that we have, and as a part of our American community, they want to be a part of change.” The women’s basketball team has two international players for 2020-21, senior Chloe Bibby from Australia and freshman Taisiya Kozlova from Russia, and the last time the team did not have an international player was 2015-16.

The Big Ten Conference, which counts Maryland as a member, had announced its own voter registration initiative about a month before VoTERP officially launched. Ellis said that VoTERP will complement and expand the Big Ten’s work; for example, Maryland’s voter registration week will line up with the conference’s voter registration day to give students more time to engage. “We didn’t want it to become more confusing, because that’s kind of the problem in the first place,” Ellis said. “… So we’re trying to work hand-in-hand so that … student-athletes are getting hit with the same message through a few different places.”

Despite the athletic department’s work to date on voter registration, Evans has not required all teams to take Election Day off. Ellis indicated that it is “a priority” for the women’s basketball staff, but they want to see their final, COVID-19-influenced schedule before deciding. VoTERP will also promote early voting for all student-athletes in October.

George Washington women’s basketball

On July 24, GW Athletics announced a new voter registration and education initiative called #OnlyAtGW, which aims to get 100% of GW student-athletes registered to vote and help them learn about the issues and candidates on the ballot. The initiative will also organize educational speaker series and discussion groups for student-athletes and pursue volunteering opportunities at polling places or virtually on Election Day.

Maddie Loder, a rising junior on the women’s basketball team, helped start the initiative. She was inspired to create change by the protests that erupted after Floyd was killed just 30 miles from her hometown of Orono, Minnesota. She emailed several city and state politicians asking what changes they planned to implement in the wake of Floyd’s death, and their lack of response made her question whether they are the right leaders to have in charge. She also turned to GW assistant coach Kevin DeMille to brainstorm what she could do next, and those discussions led to more conversations, research, and eventually #OnlyAtGW.

Loder and three other leaders of #OnlyAtGW found in their initial research that about 60% of eligible student-athletes were registered to vote, which is much lower than the 79% of all GW students who were registered in 2016. Loder explained that #OnlyAtGW is important as “a testament to what people can do right now. … If you go out and vote right now, you’re going to be helping. No matter who you vote for or what you do, it’s going to help because you’re fulfilling your civic duty.”

GW guard Maddie Loder brings the ball up against Minnesota’s Gadiva Hubbard in a game on December 10, 2019. Photo credit: GW Athletics

As Election Day approaches, Loder hopes to organize groups of student-athletes from the same state or region to discuss local and state elections. GW women’s basketball will also have the day off from team activities on Election Day, giving everyone in the program more time to participate in the election.

#OnlyAtGW complements a broader social justice initiative started by players in GW’s conference, the Atlantic 10, and led by GW’s Neila Luma and Dayton’s Araion Bradshaw. Athletes Driving Change aims to use athletes’ platforms to raise awareness of racism and injustice and promote change, including by dedicating one game per team to Black Lives Matter, donating $1 for each free throw made in February 2021 to Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp, and partnering with voter registration groups on each of the A-10’s campuses.

Howard women’s basketball

The Howard women’s basketball team took part in the #HBCUSALLIN challenge, which was started by the Howard women’s volleyball team in late June to increase voter registration and turnout. The volleyball team got all of its student-athletes registered to vote and nominated other teams at Howard and other historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to follow suit. The women’s basketball team posted on Instagram on July 21 that all of its student-athletes had registered and nominated Howard men’s soccer to follow suit:

Other DC-area teams

The women’s basketball teams at Georgetown, George Mason, and American Universities also plan not to have team activities on Election Day. With the coronavirus pandemic curtailing team activities and limiting colleges’ ability to bring students on campus, student-athletes may end up having the day off anyway, but the commitment is still symbolically important.

These efforts matter individually, and they also matter collectively. In the 2016 election, just 61% of eligible adults and less than half of eligible 18- to 29-year-olds cast a vote. Voters also tended to be whiter, be more affluent, and have different political ideologies than nonvoters, which suggests that our elected officials are less than fully representative of our communities.

This level of turnout has been fairly consistent over the past four decades—and lower than many other countries that do not require citizens to vote. But through VoTERP, #HBCUSALLIN, #OnlyAtGW, and several other efforts, women’s basketball players in DC and nationwide are looking to change that.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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