Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey grew up in Kentucky in the 1960s, a child during the civil rights movement who witnessed the efforts of those in power to disenfranchise people of color and slow their push for equality.
So every two years, when election time arrives in the United States, Casey drives home to his players the importance of participating in the voting process.
“I tell my players, ‘Get your absentee ballots and vote,’” Casey said. “I remember my grandparents talking about when African-Americans couldn’t vote. Or they tried to make it hard for them to vote.
“So that is a privilege a lot of people fought for, you went to jail for. Everyone should vote.”
Casey has been particularly insistent since he started coaching the NBA’s only Canadian team. The Raptors employ a bunch of American players far removed from their local polling place, and Casey encourages them to think ahead so the grind of the NBA season doesn’t cost them their say in the election.
“That’s your way of showing power as an individual,” Casey said. “We can protest, but the only way you fight stuff like that is through voting. Using your right to vote.”
Many athletes have to rely on absentee ballots, either because they reside permanently in a different state from their team or because they are on the road on Election Day.
Several teams have taken steps to help. The NFL’s Minnesota Vikings roll out a voter education program every two years to ensure players, coaches and staff members understand voting practices in Minnesota.
“It’s a right, and everybody needs to exercise their rights,” said Lester Bagley, Vikings executive vice president of legal affairs and stadium development. “Make it as easy as possible, answer the questions, get them the resources, connect them. It’s every two years and it’s a direct message to all staff, all players to participate and here’s how to do it.”
The Vikings also joined with the Minnesota secretary of state’s office in a public service announcement to encourage fans to vote, a local campaign similar to the national two put out by the NBA Players’ Association.
A PSA featuring LeBron James only encouraged people to exercise their right to vote and didn’t advocate for a candidate.
That’s the approach the Vikings take. Les Pico, executive director of player development, began the voter education program when he arrived in 2005. This year, the team emailed players three times to encourage them to register, placed forms in their lockers reminding them to get an absentee ballot and offered help in assisting them to register in their home states.