Deals for democracy: How college athletes are helping turn out the vote

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Top-tier collegiate sports have been transformed by new rules empowering athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness, allowing them to promote everything from deodorant and Kool-Aid to local casinos and car dealerships.

Now, a progressive group is hoping such deals can help turn out the vote.

NextGen America, founded by billionaire former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, launched its “Draft for Democracy” initiative ahead of November’s midterms, partnering with more than 50 Division I athletes in eight battleground states to promote voter registration among their fans and classmates.

The student-athletes are paid to promote voting on their social media platforms and hold various in-person events on their campuses.

University of Houston quarterback Ike Ogbogu helped plan speed-dating events on campus in recent weeks along with NextGen America.

“People were kind of hesitant at first to take part in it,” Ogbogu told The Hill. “I think that’s a reflection of young voters as a whole. I just don’t think young voters … as a whole have too much information on how to vote, so I think they’re kind of discouraged by that.”

Ogbogu, a native of San Jose, Calif., said the initiative has helped amplify his voice on key issues in his newly adopted home in Houston, Texas, such as gun violence and abortion.

“I just wanted to help get young people out there and vote,” Ogbogu said, adding that the stigma against voting among Gen Z and millennials meant that older generations were wielding all the power at the ballot box.

“But that’s important for young people to have their voices heard, that matters they find important are actually being heard by our politicians and our leaders in the community,” he added.

While the athletes and organizers involved in the Draft for Democracy said they were not pushing particular parties and candidates, young voters skew heavily toward Democrats.

College students voted in record numbers in 2020, and voters aged 18-29 were critical in to President Biden’s victory over former President Trump in key swing states including Arizona, Georgia and Michigan, according to Tufts University research. In Georgia, for example, where Trump lost by about 10,000 votes, Biden saw a 188,000 margin of victory among voters 18-29.

NextGen America also sent 140 of its field organizers to set up shop at over 150 college campuses across the country ahead of election day, when voters in some of those same states will decide the balance of power in Washington and their state capitals.

NextGen’s America Social Media Influencer Manager Julia McCarthy, who runs the Draft for Democracy initiative, said athletes are compensated to be “trusted messengers and leaders in their community to make sure that their friends or families or classmates or team or teammates are ready to register to vote.”

NextGen America’s National Press Secretary Kristi Johnston told The Hill that student-athletes are not instructed to endorse particular candidates or issues.

“Athletes know their fans and audience very well and they know what issues they care about and what is resonating with them ahead of the midterms,” Johnston said. “We think that there is no better influencer than an athlete on a college campus because they are able to use their resounding voices to make the biggest impact possible.”

NextGen wouldn’t provide details about its deals with the athletes.

The NCAA lifted its long-standing rules against student-athletes making money on their fame following the Supreme Court’s decision in June 2021 upholding a lower court ruling that the NCAA violated antitrust laws by limiting student-athletes’ compensation.

Some athletes have signed dozens of deals worth millions of dollars. University of Alabama quarterback Bryce Young has reportedly signed more than $3 million worth of name, image and likeness deals, after his stock soared following his Heisman trophy win last year.

The NextGen America initiative comes amid a heated battle for control of the Senate, which is widely expected to come down to a few key swing states, as well as competitive races for governor in states from Oregon to Pennsylvania.

Penn State University swimmer Olivia Jack said she was excited to join the turn-out-the-vote push to lift up marginalized voices.

“Well, as a Black woman in the United States of America, voting is a really big deal within the Black community, especially with basically minority groups,” Jack told The Hill, citing priority issues such as immigration, systemic racism, abortion and civil rights.

“I think it’s really important for everyone to use their voice but especially in the U.S. where minority groups have been oppressed in many ways. Not only my community, the Black community, the Caribbean community, but also everyone around me to use their voice,” she added.

Ky’Wuan Dukes, a wide receiver at Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina, was the first athlete from a historically Black college or university to ink a name, image and likeness deal last year. He told The Hill he joined the Draft for Democracy to raise awareness around issues including poverty and violence.

“Voting is important to me because I’m very big in my community,” Dukes told The Hill. “See a lot of stuff that definitely needs change and I feel like with my voice is big for me to vote and just be outspoken and voice my opinion in any way.”

Dukes also said that voting is essential to prepare young people for the future.

“And I feel like if you vote, that you just want to help because if you don’t, you’re just wasting time to be honest because you use your voice to help change something for not only yourself, but the whole world or wherever you from or wherever you’re at,” he said. “So I feel voting is definitely important.”

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