The social and racial justice movements sparked in 2020 began an unprecedented voting awareness and education campaign from the NFL, its stars and clubs.
Heading into the 2022 election cycle, NFL Votes remained a priority for the league and its employees – including players, coaches and front office staff – with everybody receiving voter education, information and support.
NFL Votes has become a vital community engagement initiative for the league in its third year – and the NFL has spent months preparing and targeting the midterm elections of Tuesday, Nov. 8, with the campaign reaching more than 160 million people, according to the league. The initiative is a joint effort between the NFL and NFL Players Association.
“We do see ourselves as stewards of a public asset that has a responsibility to the community to drive unambiguously good, non-partisan efforts in our society,” Washington Commanders president Jason Wright told USA TODAY Sports. “And this is one of those.
Follow every game: Live NFL Scores
“We can take the players’ ambition, creativity, and passion and put some infrastructure around it and allow them to have tangible impact beyond a social media campaign and beyond a message to their already-sizable fanbase.”
The movement started with players like Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, New Orleans Saints defensive back Tyrann Mathieu and several others sharing personal stories about voting. That’s led to an advertising campaign, with players sharing those experiences, aired during games over the past few weeks.
“I think we’ve effectively amplified their voices in this, and we’re really grateful for their participation as well,” Brendon Plack, NFL senior vice president for public policy and government affairs, told USA TODAY Sports.
Chiefs president Mark Donovan said Mahomes told his teammates in 2020 about the confusion regarding his registration status in the Kansas City area. Mathieu, who was with the Chiefs then, was honest about how voting was not prioritized during his upbringing and that his views changed. The conversations between the players and team created a “direct path” to provide awareness and bring in experts who could actually provide resources around registration and information.
RISE To Vote, one of the league’s three official partners in NFL Votes, is a New York-based organization that works with other leagues and college athletic departments to promote voter activity. With the NFL, RISE leads workshops with players and business staffs and visited with five teams this year: the Los Angeles Rams, the Buffalo Bills, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Commanders and the Chiefs.
Scarlen Martinez, who leads the athlete empowerment team at RISE, will begin a session with an NFL club on an educational note, reviewing the impact of voting rights on various marginalized groups in the United States.
The second part is providing tools to become an informed voter. RISE helps individuals check registration, become aware of important dates, find candidate profiles and gain exposure to their viewpoints.
“This wouldn’t be as successful if it weren’t all hands on deck,” Martinez told USA TODAY Sports. “It speaks volumes when you have everyone in your organization getting beyond an issue or priority and then involving folks like us to do this work in the community, I think, is super important.”
The third section of the presentation focuses on broader themes of civic engagement. Voting is one part, Martinez said. But there are philanthropy and volunteer opportunities, and athletes are encouraged to use their platforms.
“They can talk about how efficient it can be if you follow the right process,” Donovan said of RISE. “I think they do a good job with that. I think they understand the audience. They can speak to them and answer questions effectively. They’re experts in their field, and they do it in a way that resonates with our coaches and players.”
Martinez said there has been more of a concerted effort on the NFL’s part to reach more communities. In coordination with the Rams’ season opener in September, she led an NFL Votes booth in Long Beach, California, at a J Balvin concert to engage the Latino community.
The NFL said approximately 90 percent of active players are registered to vote. Some teams reported that 100 percent of players were registered in 2020, a goal the Commanders also reached this cycle.
This year, the NFL is also partnering with “Vet The Vote,” an organization that recruits military veterans to work as election workers.
“Who better to step into this role of allowing the democracy to function during the most critical time period?” said Commanders vice president of governmental affairs Joe Maloney.
In the two weekends before Election Day, teams had activations with field logos to promote voting. All NFL stadiums have the capacity to be used as polling sites, but with turnout traditionally much lower during a midterm cycle, the need hasn’t been as prevalent.
That won’t stop some teams from going into communities in the lead-up to the election. The Denver Broncos, for example, approached NFL Votes as a season-long initiative, director of community development Liz Jeralds said.
The Broncos will host the Denver Mobile Voting Unit in its stadium’s parking lot on Nov. 4 and 5 as a ballot drop-off site and registration center. On Election Day, cheerleaders will help pass out Broncos-branded “I Voted” stickers in English and Spanish. The spirit squad will attend a pep rally at a local high school; in Colorado, those over the age of 16 can pre-register to vote.
“We really make sure that we’re a resource to people in our organization and in our community and we encourage people inside and outside the building to become educated and get active,” Jeralds told USA TODAY Sports, adding that a player registered for the first time recently.
Teams such as the Commanders and the Seattle Seahawks have websites fans can use that include how to register to vote, important dates and player or coach testimonies.
“Sports brings people together like very few other things do,” Seahawks vice president of marketing and community engagement Jeff Richards told USA TODAY Sports. “So it’s important to us … that we are using our platform to bring people together and you got to do that through elections as well, so that people’s voices are heard.”
On game days, Richards said, everyone is welcome to be part of the “12,” no matter the walk of life they may come from. But that requires participation, just like voting.
“There’s a lot of divisiveness that exists right now,” Richards said. “There are people from all different sorts of angles and views that are really passionate about their point of view, more so now than ever before, there are ways for us to hear those opinions and say those things.”
The key to the NFL Votes efforts is that all campaigns and education are non-partisan. Like a football roster, each fan base is a cross-section of the country. The same people who trade barbs on social media trade high-fives when their favorite player scores a touchdown.
The NFL does not advocate for a specific outcome or policy change. Simply casting a ballot is the goal of NFL Votes, Plack said.
“While we don’t tell you who to vote for,” Martinez said, “I can give you the tools for you to seek out information and see who aligns to your needs and your community’s needs.”
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.