NBA Arenas Used as Polling Stations
By David Steele
NBA arenas across the country are being transformed into voting sites for the 2020 general elections in November. The details were ironed out beginning in late August, and as recently as the last week of September, even more plans were being finalized. But the idea of NBA arenas serving as large-scale, COVID-safe voting locations for this year’s critical elections has been floating around since late June, barely a month after George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed by Minneapolis police.
To be clear, the idea was floated by both NBA and WNBA players who play in those arenas, including Natasha Cloud, Bradley Beal, Aerial Powers, Ian Mahinmi and their teammates on the Washington Wizards and Washington Mystics.
Individually and collectively, the players nudged the franchise to first open up the Wizards’ downtown home, the roughly 20,000-capacity Capital One Arena and then demanded that the Mystics’ 2-year-old 4,200-seat Entertainment and Sports Arena in a previously-blighted area of southeast Washington, D.C., be available as well.
The move made too much sense to not do it – and all things considered, long before and ever since the racial reckoning in the wake of Floyd’s slaying gripped the country, it was long overdue.
It took a social upheaval and a racial awakening the magnitude of this year’s to convince billion-dollar sports empires to service and engage in the city they capitalize on. The disconnect was commonplace and accepted, not just in Washington but in every major city with a big-league sports franchise and a state-of-the-art venue (or two, or three, or four).
The players broke the disconnect. They gave a clear, unambiguous answer to every question about what these athletes plan to do besides kneeling, raising fists and interrupting America’s escape into sports for relief from the pandemic, recession and racial unrest. And in the process, they put their employers, the 1 percent, the wielders of true power in their business, on blast. Are you going to post a boilerplate statement in support of unity and understanding? They asked. Or are you going to be an actual ally? Are the players, the city and its residents really your partners, or is this a one-way street?
When Natasha Cloud, a star for the then-reigning WNBA champion Mystics, wrote a first-person manifesto titled, “Your Silence is a Knee on My Neck,” days after George Floyd’s killing, she did not specifically mention opening arenas as voting locations. What she said, though, was a wake-up call for every athlete who might feel as if their role really was to simply “shut up and dribble.”
In her May 30th message for The Players’ Tribune, Cloud wrote: “…what’s really going to move the needle here is everyone getting involved — and by that I mean all athletes. Because there’s no room for any of that silence or “neutrality” in the athlete community either. Those old excuses about not wanting to lose sponsorships, or not wanting to alienate certain types of fans, or how “racists buy sneakers too” or whatever?? We don’t have time for that. Not when lives are being lost. We need to meet this moment with accountability, and solidarity, and leadership.”
A little over a month later, the Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks had offered their arenas for use as voting centers – all in states with well-documented misfires and malfunctions involving voter access, voter suppression and basic operations surrounding elections. In mid-July, Wizards’ center Ian Mahinmi told NBC Sports Washington: "I think it's our job to provide a platform and to help the people that are lacking space and time to do and exercise their right. When you look around the country, across the country, and what's going on as far as the ability to vote, providing this for the people would be such a great move.’’
Yet the NBA, its owners and arena operators did not get fully on board until the players threw down their biggest card. On Aug. 26, at their pandemic-mandated “bubble” in Orlando, Fla., in response to police in Kenosha, Wis., shooting Jacob Blake in the back seven times, the NBA and WNBA teams went on strike. The NBA teams, led by the Milwaukee Bucks, walking out in the middle of their playoffs.
Kenny Smith, a co-host on TNT's Inside the NBA postgame show and a two-time championship winner as a player, joined the walkout that night by leaving the set while live on-air, saying: “As a Black man, as a former player, I think it's best for me to support the players and just not be here tonight, and figure out what happens after that.”
Three days later, as a condition of both the NBA and WNBA players returning, the leagues and the players hammered out an agreement for teams to either open their arenas to registration, voting, ballot collection and anything else the city needed, or to work to find a venue that could.
As of the beginning of October, that meant that no fewer than 22 locations, with three cities — New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., — providing two locations each. The league belatedly added the arena in Southeast D.C., which had literally been an afterthought until the players on both Washington teams raised a stink about the voters in the city’s poorest precincts being abandoned.
The momentum started in the NBA and WNBA and reached into other major sports — not as widely, but to great effect in areas of real need. In the NFL, according to ESPN.com, 12 stadiums were on schedule to be used for voting as of early October; five Major League Baseball stadiums were as well. In the NHL, two arenas that did not have NBA teams as co-tenants will be open.
The words and the gestures by the players were louder. By kicking open doors to voting that had long been locked, their actions proved to be even louder.
Shaquille O'Neal admits that this critical election is his first time voting. Read the story here.