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College athletes on voter-registration spree: 'We have a chance to change the world'

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Missouri star linebacker Nick Bolton joined dozens of his teammates on a half-mile march to the Boone County Courthouse on Thursday. They knelt on the ground for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time that Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd before he died.

From there, Bolton and his Missouri teammates headed into the courthouse and registered to vote. In all, 62 members of the Missouri football team — essentially all that are back in the Columbia waiting to report to camp — registered to vote. The mass registering delivered a signature moment to a rocketing trend in college athletics in the wake of Floyd’s death, as there’s been a massive push for players to register to vote.

“We made a point as a team that we didn’t want to just tweet about change,” Bolton told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “We want to be part of the commitment to help fix the problems in the world.”

On Thursday around college athletics, that sentiment was echoed in every part of the country. Florida State star defensive lineman Marvin Wilson announced on Instagram that FSU football players were all registering to vote. Gonzaga coach Mark Few told ESPN that he’ll cancel all team activities on Election Day to promote team voting. Georgia Tech assistant basketball coach Eric Reveno started social media momentum that hit a crescendo when the school announced nine teams would not hold athletic activities on Nov. 3 to promote voting.

There are more than 460,000 NCAA student-athletes, and they fall in an age demographic that votes the least of any in America. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 46 percent of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in the 2016 election. There’s optimism on campuses that this voting registration push can turn into a movement.

“We have a chance to change the world and change the way younger generations live,” Bolton said. “We can spread love and optimism, and I feel like we can make the world better.”

Missouri football players take a knee after marching along with basketball coach Cuonzo Martin, president Mun Choi and other members of the athletic department. (Photo credit: Missouri Athletics)
Missouri football players take a knee after marching along with basketball coach Cuonzo Martin, president Mun Choi and other members of the athletic department. (Photo credit: Missouri Athletics)

The union of voting and big-time college sports requires college coaches to remove their myopic focus on the next opponent. In 2016, Alabama coach Nick Saban said on Election Day that he “didn’t even know it was happening.” In 2018, South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said he didn’t know the midterm elections were that day. “I do now,” Muschamp said. “I’m getting ready for Florida.”

It will be interesting to see if there’s continued movement for more awareness among college coaches to accommodate and educate their players about voting. Reveno proposed that Nov. 3 become a mandatory NCAA off day from team activities to allow athletes to vote.

If the players continue to provide the momentum, coaches will have to follow.

“Our team wanted to take tangible action to promote change, and voting is our way to create ‘a more perfect union,’ ” Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz told Yahoo Sports. “I’m proud to be called their coach.”

There are discussions everywhere, including at Alabama, for similar voting registration programs to be put into place. Miami football coach Manny Diaz said in a phone interview on Thursday that he’s discussing a similar program with his team. But he doesn’t just want them to fill out a ballot.

“I think we have another duty,” said Diaz, whose father was the mayor of Miami from 2001 to 2009. “Telling everyone to vote is a great first step. We also have a duty to educate. Not just at the presidential level. Some of the issues that need to get fixed, they are at the local and state level.”

The idea of entire college sports teams voting isn’t completely new.

Back in 2016, the Coastal Carolina team busses pulled up to a local elementary school in Conway, South Carolina. More than 100 players filed off the busses and voted in the presidential election.

The moment drew a wave of positive attention, as then-coach Joe Moglia hailed it as the first time in the 150-year history of college football that a team voted together in an election. Could we soon see an environment where that’s commonplace?

Moglia spent the weeks prior to Election Day educating his players on the election, as they took part in mock debates role-playing Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. He said it was a powerful scene after the team voted.

“Everyone giving everyone else hugs,” Moglia said of the moment. “It was something that they were very, very proud of, and as a school Coastal Carolina was very proud of it.”

Towson basketball coach Pat Skerry also had his team vote in 2016. It came in part because his wife, Kristen, asked him: “Why don’t all your guys vote?” He didn’t have a good answer, so he made a rule that they all needed to register.

The highlights included an impromptu standing ovation for then-star Mike Morsell by members of the student body at the polling station.

Skerry said it was a positive experience for his players, and he plans on repeating it.

“We make them go to class and get back on transition defense,” Skerry said. “Why wouldn’t we register them to vote?”

The logistics appear easy. Bolton said registering took less than seven minutes for him in Columbia today. Skerry said that at Towson it was directed by an associate athletic director and assistant coach, who didn’t begin until the start of the fall semester. Moglia said the plan began a few months before the election and was executed by graduate assistants and interns.

“At the end of the day, it’s still about helping our guys build a foundation,” Moglia said. “How much time do we really genuinely spend in helping them lay that foundation for life?”

On Thursday, that foundation appeared to be building quickly. And this time, the players are doing the work to build it.

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