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There has been no better example of a professional stereotype come to life than four years ago when Alabama coach Nick Saban famously said the day after the 2016 election that he didn’t even realize it had happened.
“We’re focused on other things here,” he said.
Whether it was true, it’ll be impossible for Saban — or any coach — to say the same this year. That’s because the NCAA, picking up on an idea that started at Georgia Tech, decided last month to make it an official policy for all Division I athletes to have Election Day off. In other words, any coach who schedules a practice for next Tuesday would be violating NCAA rules.
You might be surprised to learn that even amidst the protests against racial inequality and police brutality that many of their players participated in this summer, some college football coaches aren’t that keen on the disruption to their normal week.
College football practice fields will be quiet on Election Day, something that does not thrill all coaches. (Photo: Keith Srakocic, AP)
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In a lot of programs, Tuesdays are the most important practice day where much of the gameplan for the following week’s opponent gets introduced. Plus, a lot of coaches aren’t convinced the off day will serve much of a purpose, given that many of their players have to vote by out-of-state absentee ballot anyway or availed themselves of early voting.
“We’ve worked very hard with our team so that anybody that wasn’t registered is now registered, and we’ve had our people administratively help them get their ballots, make sure they’re voting and have voted,” said Duke’s David Cutcliffe. “So I think it’s a little more showy, honestly — I’ll just say it like it is — than it has purpose.”
Cutcliffe is hardly alone. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney told reporters earlier this month he “didn’t really understand the day off thing” and wasn’t happy about having to move things around before a key game against Notre Dame. Louisville’s Scott Satterfield said the day off won’t help his players vote, since nearly all of them have already done it.
“I understand the premise and the NCAA saying we’re going to focus on that. I get it,” Satterfield said. “But our guys have already handled their business with it.”
In a sense, you can understand where they’re coming from. Good coaches are generally task-oriented and don’t like to waste time, so if they’ve already done the necessary things to help their players vote, what’s the point of wasting a day on which they’re not going to actually be voting?
But the counterargument for that is much more persuasive, and it’s why Georgia Tech basketball assistant Eric Reveno came up with the idea in the first place, which spread to all of Georgia Tech athletics, then schools across the country and then entire NCAA.
Reveno is one of the more thoughtful people you’ll come across in college athletics; educated at Stanford, played professionally in Japan, former head coach at Portland and has long been vocal about systemic problems within the NCAA structure and the rights of college athletes. And even he realized, through conversations with players following the killing of George Floyd this summer, that there’d been a blind spot in his career.
“It just was so clear to me: What have I done in my lifetime as a coach to help engage student-athletes in their most basic civic responsibility? What have I personally done?” Reveno said. “And I had to face the reality, I hadn’t done much. In 24 years I don’t remember a team meeting, an athletic department staff meeting, I don’t remember anything within a department where we did anything around voting. I’d done stuff on financial literacy, mental wellness and yet we hadn’t done this most basic civic engagement piece, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.”
To be clear, a lot of coaches in basketball, football and other sports agreed with Reveno when he started the #AllVoteNoPlay hashtag on Twitter promoting giving athletes Election Day off. Geoff Collins, the football coach at Georgia Tech, got on board right away. Two weeks before the NCAA made it a rule, Texas’ Tom Herman said it would be a day off and that transportation would be provided to football players who wanted to go to the polls. Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck said it was a mark of leadership for coaches to make Election Day something big and sacred, not just another opportunity to put on pads.
“In 2020, there are things more important than just football,” Fleck told USA TODAY Sports. “And this being one of the most important elections in U.S. history and especially with what’s going on in our country, our young people need that day to be able to go vote and the more people who vote the more positive it is in terms of our democracy. If we can promote voting it’s going to help everything we’re dealing with, and we have to be leaders of that.”
Reveno, for the record, said he never intended for this to wind up costing football coaches practice time when he pushed the NCAA to adopt it as policy. He knows Tuesday is an important preparation day and thought there might be some kind of waiver available where teams could practice if they had demonstrated making an effort to get athletes to the polls.
At the same time, there is some powerful symbolism to what the NCAA has done. On Monday, Reveno said he was talking to some Georgia Tech athletes outside McCamish Pavilion, the Yellow Jackets’ basketball arena that has been used as an early voting site, and met a football player who was going to drive two hours home next Tuesday because he wanted to cast his first-ever vote in person and a softball player who was flying home to Florida because her absentee ballot never arrived.
When you see that kind of excitement about voting, that kind of dedication to it within an age group that hasn’t registered high participation rates in prior elections, it’s clear that the symbolism of what the NCAA did is just as significant as the practical aspect of getting them to the polls.
“We have to make this important, celebrate it, focus on it,” Reveno said. “I know there are football coaches out there who have done it in the past, so to the coach who was already doing it every election, I apologize. But the majority of us haven’t been doing it to the level we need to.”
And it’s led to real dividends, beyond just the more organized effort to register football players and help them vote. Kirby Smart, for instance, said Georgia has had sessions for players to learn about candidates in local and state elections to help them make decisions about who to vote for. That kind of extra effort is all a product of the NCAA’s determination to put voting at the forefront for athletes, and that’s worth a lot more than the inconvenience of jumbled practice schedules.
“A lot of things that have happened over the last six, eight months have brought people’s attention the importance of expressing themselves by the way they vote,” Saban said last week, showing an evolution in his position from four years ago though he maintains he always had voted by absentee ballot even when he was laser-focused on the season.”
But no coach or educator should ever have such tunnel vision that they didn’t know an election isn’t happening. With the NCAA making it a day off — not just this year but for every Election Day going forward — college football is sending exactly the right message about what really matters.