These college coaches are working to drive voter turnout among athletes
Towson associate women's basketball coach Zach Kancher logged on to a Zoom call one evening last week and pulled up his latest scouting report. It started with the schedule, then information on personnel, then a series of strategies and tendencies that he knew would be critical in the weeks ahead.
Kancher has put together hundreds of scouting reports like this over the course of his coaching career. But this one had nothing to do with a game, and he wasn't presenting it to his own team. He was helping members of Pittsburgh's athletic department prepare to get out the vote.
"You put it in the framework, the language that coaches and student-athletes find acceptable," Kancher said. "And now it creates a lot more clarity as far as what’s going on."
As Election Day nears, coaches like Kancher have been at the center of a get-out-the-vote groundswell in college athletics, where athletic department officials are going to new lengths this year to ensure that their athletes cast their ballots by Nov. 3.
The NCAA's Division I Council did its part last month by voting to prohibit athletically-related activities, including practices and games, on Election Day. Meanwhile, dozens of athletic departments have held voter registration drives and ensured that 100% of their eligible athletes are registered to vote, from Oregon and DePaul to California State University, Los Angeles and Yale.
Members of the Auburn football team registered to vote last month. (Photo: Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics, Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics)
Other schools have hit the same threshold at the team level, with entire rosters registering to vote, sometimes as a group. At the University of Missouri, for example, more than 60 football players marched in June from their campus to a local courthouse to register en masse shortly after George Floyd's death.
"Our country’s created to make change through our elective bodies," Missouri football coach Eli Drinkwitz told reporters on a teleconference last week. "That’s how the founding fathers have established it. That’s the way that we get to voice who we’re for and what we’re for."
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Though athletes have been the driving force behind many of these voting initiatives, there's been a notable shift on voting from coaches. Many have long encouraged their athletes to vote, often privately or individually. But this year, they have collectively embraced and emphasized get-out-the-vote efforts like rarely before — often orchestrating team-wide voting initiatives that might have, in previous election cycles, felt like a step too far into the political realm.
Kancher, who is in his fourth season at Towson, is both evidence and at the center of that shift.
Earlier this summer, as the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black men and women sparked protests around the country, Kancher said he saw athletes who were looking for ways to turn their emotions into action but dealing with "a void of information" about how to do it. He founded the Student-Athlete Voter Engagement (SAVE) Alliance, as well as a local initiative at Towson, in an attempt to fill that void.
For the better part of three months, Kancher said he has been drafting and presenting his election scouting reports on a near-nightly basis, reaching an estimated 4,000 athletes, coaches and administrators so far.
Towson associate women's basketball coach Zach Kancher has been helping college athletes around the country register to vote and learn about the issues. (Photo: Courtesy of Towson Athletics)
Each report is tailored to the circumstances in that university's state — such as information about down-ballot races or state-specific requirements for absentee voting — and focuses not just on why voting is important, but how to do it.
"I talk with student-athletes all the time about making voting personal," he explained. "In order to be an engaged voter, you don’t have to be an expert on like Iranian nuclear policy, right? All you’ve got to do is pick a couple issues that matter most to you, and then research the candidates who most closely think like you do up and down the ballot."
Kancher also partnered with another recently-formed organization, Coaches 4 Change, which has a similar emphasis on voting but also strives to be a tool for athletes and coaches to learn about and discuss social injustice and systemic racism. The organization, which was launched in July, now consists of more than 220 basketball and strength and conditioning coaches from around the country and said it has helped 85 teams reach the 100% voter registration mark to date.
"We’re able to kind of give ideas to one another," said Siena men's basketball coach Carmen Maciariello, who founded the group, "but also give our student-athletes a voice. Let them see they do have power, they do have a platform, they can make a difference."
Some coaches have used those national groups as a resource for efforts on their own campuses.
At Oregon, for instance, Coaches 4 Change members Mike Mennenga and Courtney Walden helped create a program called "Keep It 100," which seeks 100% voter registration and participation, while also asking athletes to take a lifelong pledge against racism. All of the school's teams ultimately agreed to participate in the program.
"Because of all that's been going on in our society — whether it's COVID or civil unrest, the election, what have you — these students these days are a little bit more engaged than maybe five, 10 years ago," Mennenga, an assistant men's basketball coach, told The Register-Guard. "Because it's around them all day, every day."
Other coaches are taking it one step beyond voting and looking for other ways to help on Election Day. Wisconsin volleyball coach Kelly Sheffield, for example, said 15 athletes and staff members from the volleyball program alone have signed up to be poll workers, most of them in Madison, Wisconsin and the surrounding area.
"We didn’t discuss it with the team until the day that we told the team that the season was being postponed," Sheffield said. "I think somebody said, 'Well, what now?' And I said, 'Well, I had a hairbrained idea. What do y’all think?' And the entire team got excited about it — 'yeah, let’s do that, let’s put our energy behind that.' "
Ahead of an election in which some experts believe voters between 18 and 24 could play a pivotal role, Kancher believes college athletes are not just excited about voting but also invested to a degree that they haven't been before. They're expressing interest in down-ballot races and initiatives, and a greater understanding of what those results might signify. And coaches hope those habits will live on beyond Nov. 3.
"You hope that educating this group can carry that torch, and now you’re creating voters for life," Maciariello said. "It starts with this group that’s in college."
Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.
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