The intersection of sports, voting and race relations doesn't end on Election Day

Arun Srinivasan
·5-min read
RISE CEO Diahann Billings-Burford is helping some of the leading figures in the world of sports increase civic engagement and voter registration. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
RISE CEO Diahann Billings-Burford is helping some of the leading figures in the world of sports increase civic engagement and voter registration. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

There is no more room in the arena to hide from the political space when it comes to sports in 2020. Not in a year when a civil rights movement rose to the forefront amidst a global pandemic and one of the most contentious and important election cycles in decades, all of which are invariably linked to the world of sports.

RISE, a not-for-profit organization with headquarters in New York and Detroit, works with athletes, teams and leagues to educate the sports community, with a focus on eliminating racial discrimination, increased awareness around social justice, and improved race relations.

Nearing the end of a long, drawn out U.S. election cycle, RISE CEO Diahann Billings-Burford spoke to Yahoo Sports Canada about the importance of voter registration during an election cycle where voter suppression is at the forefront, and why genuine progress on race relations, system racism and police brutality has to go beyond voting on or ahead of Nov. 3.

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Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs are among the highest-profile partners RISE works with. The reigning Super Bowl MVP got involved after the NFL instituted the NFL Votes initiative in August. As part of the team’s effort to increase voter registration, the Chiefs worked to make Arrowhead Stadium available as a polling and voter registration site.

“This year, when we were with the Chiefs, they said 'hey, we wanted to do this with RISE, we've done some other stuff, much smaller.' We did the voter education registration session and after that, Patrick authentically really engaged in this issue, in civic engagement, in voting in particular,” Billings-Burford said. “And so from that has come us helping them, crafting a script for their PSA. We've got some other things lined up for them. It started with the NFL Votes initiative, but really Patrick and many other players on the Chiefs have taken it to the next level.”

After the Chiefs shared a video with Mahomes and All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu urging their fans and constituents to become more aware of voter registration and education, people from 39 states swarmed to the website’s registration page, RISE communications manager Jared Shanker confirmed via e-mail.

"If we weren't having this meeting, I wouldn't even know that I wasn't registered," Mahomes said via the Chiefs’ official website in August. "That's why we partnered with RISE. They have the tools to make sure that we as leaders in the community can get registered."

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The RISE to Vote initiative is one of several projects and programs the non-profit champions, in an effort to improve race relations and eliminate racial discrimination in the sports sphere.

Still, even during an election with grand consequences for the United States’ immediate future, there is a notion that a summer that built genuine progress and awareness against police brutality, systemic racism, and anti-Black racism is now being neatly swept into an umbrella concept of voting, as opposed to prolonged, persistent anti-racist thinking.

Asked about how people should engage in the political arena beyond the presidential election, and why Joe Biden isn’t accepted as a genuinely progressive candidate among those on the left, Billings-Burford noted that this is a genuine concern among university students across the country.

Hall of Fame safety and USC alumnus Ronnie Lott spoke to the school’s football team about why voting is still important, even if an ideal candidate hasn’t risen to the forefront during this year’s cycle.

“A lot of people in that age group are not enamoured with Joe Biden. And they are not enamoured with the choices in front of them. So our answer to that has been two-fold and one, I will say, I got to give completely to Ronnie Lott, who joined the USC call. He was amazing.

“And Ronnie said to the football team, ‘guys, if you don't like what's in front of you, you are literally trained to never give up any advantage. And you have given up an advantage you had, or else you'd probably would have a candidate you'd like, and if you don't go out again, you'll give up another advantage."

Billings-Burford also championed the linkage between voting and policy initiatives, with voting operating as a mechanism to affect programming, policy and structural changes against myriad forces that contribute to inequality and systemic racism.

“I have shared with many students — and there are older adults who ask this question, but it really does come a lot from that population, really directly. I have said at RISE that we see the connection between protests and programs. I don't run programs, I don't approve programs that aren't solution-oriented. I think people are protesting a particular issue or a problem and programs we implement are meant to be solutions to those problems. I think we need to see voting and programming much the same, they go hand-in-hand,” she said.

“If you are concerned and you're protesting and you're on the left and you're thinking of defunding the police. If you're thinking about that stuff, you're technically in the policy space and if you don't get some elected officials that will at least listen to you, then you are not making any movement on the issue you care about.

“We see a very clear connection between protests, programming and civic engagement as one of our programs.”

The common thread between sports and politics isn’t going anywhere, and while voting is one component toward a more equal society, there is still work to be done after Nov. 3. RISE will be there well after the polls close, bridging the sports and policy communities together.

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