NAU linebacker has spotlight in Biden ad during Monday Night Football

Northern Arizona linebacker has a podcast called “The Social” that he started with teammate Brandon Lawless, where the two discuss social justice and what’s happening to Black Americans. (Photo by David Dennis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Northern Arizona linebacker Tristen Vance, number 33, is featured in an ad supporting Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. The Hamilton High School graduate is critical of President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Northern Arizona University)

LOS ANGELES – The intersection of sports and politics will take center stage again Monday night when a campaign ad featuring a Northern Arizona football player will air during ESPN’s broadcast of the Arizona Cardinals-Dallas Cowboys game.

Tristen Vance, a Hamilton High School graduate and linebacker for the Lumberjacks, expected to play his final season this fall before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The Big Sky Conference postponed its football season until the spring, pushing Vance’s true senior season back to next fall.

“I’ve been working my whole life towards a dream to play professionally,” Vance, 23, says in a 30-second ad supporting Joe Biden. “Missing this season puts those dreams in jeopardy.”

For Vance, addressing voters and sports fans directly is an opportunity to encourage others to be as productive as the pandemic will allow them be.

“My intention behind this is really just to inspire people to just be the greatest form of themselves, you know what I mean? That’s the greatest human accomplishment, to inspire someone,” Vance told Cronkite News. “So I just hope that I inspire people to be constructive in what you do, and how you approach things, be appropriate and be fair, but if you believe in something don’t live in fear of that and be able to take that risk, be able to be a leader.”

(Video by Rachel Phillips/Cronkite News)

Sports fans have had a strong presence in both presidential candidates’ campaigns. In August, Biden released a series of ads showing empty football stadiums, including Sun Devil Stadium and Arizona Stadium, and blamed President Donald Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic for the shutdowns.

“Trump’s failure of leadership is why we can’t play right now,” Vance says in the ad. “We need a leader who’s going to look out for all of us, to be constructive and build. I trust Joe Biden to do that.”

The decision to kneel during the national anthem by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, then with the San Francisco 49ers, proved to be a divisive one. President Donald Trump has called for football fans to boycott NFL games unless the league penalizes players who refuse to stand. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

Trump, meanwhile, has denounced athletes taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice, a practice former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started in 2016. The president also has urged fans to boycott sports leagues that condone such protests.

Football games have been a platform frequented by ads for both Trump and Biden, especially at the college level, often airing during games with colleges in swing states. In addition to Vance’s ad, Biden has three other commercials airing during NFL games. The average cost of a 30-second ad during an NFL game was about $420,000 in 2019.

“Perhaps some football fans are still undecided and by presenting an advertisement during the game, people will be incidentally exposed to Biden’s message, and it could possibly influence their decision making.” said Kim Fridkin, a Foundation Professor of Political Science at ASU’s School of Politics and Global Studies. “By using a local football player, the advertisement may have additional resonance with Arizonans watching the Cardinals.”

Vance believes “a lot of the target audience of the National Football League is perceived to be a more conservative audience. However, also, it is a young audience, I believe it’s an audience that sets a lot of, you know, trends, and they’re a dynamic element of pop culture, whether it be the NFL brand itself or the athletes within the organization.”

Statistic: Average number of viewers of ESPN's Monday Night Football in the United States from 2015 to 2019 (in millions) | Statista

Campaign advertisements are common during widely broadcast events. For example, Biden ads aired during the Billboard Music Awards, the MTV Music Awards and the MLB playoffs.

“So I do believe that, if you can, you have a direct line to pop culture and influence that can directly help your campaign,” Vance said. “I believe that it’s an important thing to attack and address.”

This isn’t Vance’s first experience with speaking on politics and social issues. He has a podcast called “The Social” that he started with teammate Brandon Lawless, where the two discuss what is happening to Black Americans around the United States and social justice. He believes an article about his podcast in the Arizona Daily Sun got him noticed by the Biden campaign.

“I believe that’s how the Biden team initially found me,” he said. “When they first reached out to me, I didn’t think it was real. So they reached out to me and they said, ‘OK, we want to do an interview with you to kind of see what you’re about.'”

In addition to the podcast, Vance recently helped start an organization at NAU called Athletes for Social Alliance offering professional support for the school’s athletic community, from career fairs to financial advising.

“So it’s a collective of athletes, some Black, some Latino, some of the LGBT community, it’s a variety of us,” he said. With a staff of two and eight students, “we plan to grow and expand” with open forums, discussions on issues like voter suppression and inequality.

When the Arizona Cardinals take the field tonight, Vance along with an estimated 12 million others, will have their eyes on the TV and provided with this unique opportunity, Vance feels he can speak for more than just himself.

“I feel like student athletes, let alone African Americans, the combination of the two, you rarely would see them get this opportunity like this,” he said. “That’s why I felt so obligated to take it. Because I feel like I’m speaking for more than just myself. I feel like I’m speaking for a larger community of people. So I hope that not just that community, but everyone can feel, you know, some sort of inspiration.”

(Video courtesy Biden for President)
Sports Reporter, Los Angeles

Shane Dieffenbach is an Arizona native and a sports reporter for Cronkite News who expects to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Rachel Phillips is an Australian who’s pursuing a master’s degree in sports journalism and expects to graduate in December 2020. Phillips works as a broadcast reporter for Cronkite Sports.