Voting in college athletics

With the general election less than a week away, college athletes nationwide are looking to contribute to what many believe will be a record voter turnout.

In September, the NCAA Division I Council passed legislation that designated the first Tuesday of every November as a day focused on community service and civic engagement. Teams will be barred from practicing or competing to further encourage participation.

The DI Council is made up of student-athlete advisory committee representatives from each of the NCAA’s 32 Division I conferences. According to the NCAA’s press release regarding the legislation, the committee voiced their desire to “protect and promote the rights student-athletes have as citizens.” Far from simply a voting initiative, the council hopes to “provide NCAA schools with educational tools that may be used this year and beyond.”

Tom Lemke, the assistant director of life skills for Nebraska Athletics, has represented the university at Big Ten meetings that address civic engagement. He says the first step in the athlete outreach process was simply compiling basic information and statistics.

“We started out with a survey that went out in July, collecting baseline data just on if student athletes were registered to vote, and what topics that they would be interested in learning about,” Lemke said. “We learned that about 70% of student athletes were registered to vote, and then we crafted some educational topics based around their responses to what they wanted to be educated on.”

Lemke said that the educational aspect of the initiative has had a different theme each month. Topics have included civic engagement, voter registration and the importance of voting.

The informational component has been presented to athletes in a nonpartisan, unbiased way. Lemke said it was important to not try to “sway athletes one way or another,” but rather to provide the tools and knowledge to perform civic duties.

Athletes are getting this information in a variety of ways, according to Lemke.

“We put stuff out on Twitter, we put stuff out on Instagram and then each of them gets an email, with different topics with different information to read through graphics, with quotes from people … about voting and civic engagement,” Lemke said.

Voting will inherently be at the forefront of civic education on election years. Lemke is equipping athletes with a “voting checklist,” which helps ensure each student-athlete has everything they need before casting a ballot.

There have been signs within Nebraska Athletics that voting and civic engagement is of significant interest to student-athletes. Prior to last month’s initiative, Nebraska men’s basketball head coach Fred Hoiberg announced that he would not hold practices on Election Day to give his players the opportunity to vote.

“I didn’t know that that was happening before I saw it on the news,” Lemke said. “I just thought it was great that Fred had his players’ backs. I think it was player-driven, that they wanted to make a statement.”

Greater civic engagement within college athletics goes beyond voting. Athletes nationwide have spoken out regarding social justice issues. Nebraska’s Minority Student-Athlete Collective held a rally outside Memorial Stadium in September to raise awareness of racial inequality.

Lemke recognizes this rally as another encouraging display of athlete empowerment.

“That was completely organized by student-athletes. That’s one example of them using their voices to try and make a change,” Lemke said. “That was great to see. Even during the shutdown, they’re still constantly reaching out to us trying to figure out how they can get out in the community and help.”

COVID-19, of course, is an ever-present challenge when trying to encourage civic participation. Lemke, though, is confident in overcoming this obstacle.

“I would say it’s just been different. I wouldn’t necessarily use the word difficult, just because the student-athletes are on their phones a lot anyway,” Lemke said. “It would be helpful to have those visual reminders throughout the facility as well, but not everybody’s utilizing the facilities right now.”

Lemke said that this is not solely a Nebraska-focused effort. He said being the representative on the Big Ten committee has been helpful, as it allows him to see what other schools in the conference are doing. Every school’s goal, of course, is the same.

Whether it’s civic engagement or speaking out against social injustice, Lemke is proud of the togetherness of athletes, despite the ongoing pandemic.

“If they feel like … there’s an issue, they should have the courage and the ability and the encouragement to stand up and voice their opinion,” Lemke said. “I think that’s going to continue.”

The initiative furthers the idea that student-athletes are not in school simply to suit up on game days. Lemke knows this well.

“That’s who we’re here for in the Athletic Department. We’re here to enhance the student-athlete experience.”