PHOENIX – Athletes are speaking up more than ever about social issues, often crossing a boundary between the field of play into the arena of politics that many tried to tip-toe in the past.
And as the 2020 election approached, college athletes across Arizona used their platform to encourage fellow students, members of their wider community and their teammates to jump in with both feet.
Northern Arizona linebacker Tristen Vance took to one of sports’ biggest stages to deliver his message when he appeared during ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” broadcast of a game between the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys in a campaign ad for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
More than 11 million viewers tuned into the October 19 matchup.
“Its a very powerful outlet and source, so if you can win over their audience, (pro football) is the most popular sport in America… so I think that can directly help your campaign,” Vance said.
Vance’s ad was one in a series that highlights three keystones to Biden’s campaign: President Donald Trump’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump’s character and the importance of voting. He said student athletes, let alone African-American athletes, are something one “would rarely see” on a platform like the “MNF” ad.
“That is why I felt obligated to do it,” Vance said.
In an election that has produced record early voting, the message is taking hold.
Everyone in NAU’s athletic department, including staff, coaches and student-athletes, registered to vote. And Arizona State and Arizona took similar steps to get athletes registered and to the polls this year.
“There are 400 student athletes (at NAU),” Vance said. “That is pretty cool and powerful.”
Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels said voting is the first step toward making changes in the community, and this year the entire Sun Devil football team registered to vote.
“We all, as a team, registered to vote so when November comes we are all ready to help make changes to improve our world,” Daniels said recently.
He hopes that, with his vote and those of teammates, changes will come that eliminate social injustice and police brutality toward African-Americans.
“There are a lot of things being let go, and that is not OK,” Daniels said.
“Me being a Black student athlete – and other Black student athletes – something like wearing a hoodie, I shouldn’t be scared about,” Daniels said. “Parents shouldn’t be worried about their kids when they go out to hang out with friends… They shouldn’t have to worry about whether their son is going to make it back home or not.”
In Tucson, the Arizona athletics department also launched a voting initiative. “Wildcats Vote” is a program designed to inform student athletes, coaches, and department staff about voter registration and remind them of important election dates.
Arizona quarterback Grant Gunnell said that voting is a right, a privilege and it is important that everyone take part.
“You are voting on your future,” Gunnell said. “I feel like that is important for everyone to do as a community, not just athletes or students. You are deciding what you want this country to be.”
Gunnell, who is white, said that he and his teammates support each other and the decision of Black coaches and players to speak up about their experiences as Black men.
“You don’t judge anyone on their views. You just support them because that is your brother, ” Gunnell said. “Everyone comes from different walks of life. Everyone has different beliefs. So all you can do is support them. You don’t want to judge anyone on their views, because you do not know what they have been through and what they are going through.”
Daniels said it’s important for student athletes to recognize the reach they have and the impact they can make.
“There are certain things I can say, and people across the world can see,” he said. “There are a lot of impactful things student athletes say, and people might not see it.”
He added that if student athletes use their platform to speak up, and support each other in making their voices heard, “then I feel like there is going to be no reason but to force them to change.”
Vance said that having the support of his coaches and the athletic department at NAU gives him hope that athlete activism will be more widely accepted.
“Its important, because them instilling a level of support instills a level of confidence in me,” Vance said.
The days of “shut up and dribble” – or in Vance’s case, tackle – are over. Athletes across sports, college and professional, are making a difference by speaking their mind.
“The narrative for so long has been that they want to control the athlete’s voice, or limit the athlete’s voice or sometimes even silence them all together,” Vance said. “So (people) giving support to all that I have been doing shows a shift in the country, and it shows that people are really beginning to listen and understand.”
Vance is aware that he represents the university, but he still wants to be able to use his voice to educate and influence others in a positive way.
“I am a part of the NAU athletics brand and the NCAA brand, and for them to still allow me to be who I am beyond just a player, to be a person with a voice and opinions, is powerful,” he said. “It shows that the movement and the shift is beginning, and I do believe it’s working.”
Vance said that sharing one’s experiences with the world is the first step toward helping people understand what marginalized communities experience.
“I believe telling these stories and bringing them to print and paper is the first step in bridging the gap of understanding of different experiences,” Vance said. “Just being able to share your stories is a form of education, providing insightful information to people who do not know … how things are. And that is not even their fault.”
Those experiences will influence how many members of those communities will vote in November.
“These stories are real, by real people,” Vance said. “They may act like they don’t carry the burden of them, but they do. So, yeah, just sharing brings the reality to the issues.”
If Vance reached even one person with his message on “Monday Night Football,” he believes he accomplished his mission.
“My intention behind the campaign was really to just inspire people to be the greatest form of themselves,” he said. “I feel like that is the greatest accomplishment, being able to inspire.
“So if I can just inspire one person – or if I inspire a thousand – it’s really all equal to me.
“That is really all I wanted.”