Before George Floyd died in police custody on a Minneapolis street, Vikings 21-year-old wide receiver Justin Jefferson wasn’t that motivated to vote.
“Honestly, I wasn’t into it,” Jefferson said. “I didn’t know much about it. I never know who to vote for. I never knew who was the right person to be in office.”
But over the summer, Jefferson did the work. His mom helped him register to vote in his home state of Louisiana. He started researching which candidates up and down the ballot would best reflect his most important issue — addressing America’s racial inequality and police brutality.
“It just feels like I needed to do that,” Jefferson said. “Every vote really counts, and it’d be a shame if I didn’t put my vote into it.”
Whether registering to vote for the first time or urging others to vote — through their considerable social media platforms — Minnesota sports figures and teams have been motivated since Floyd’s death on May 25. Their voices have been louder than ever, and have drawn backlash.
“I do think the murder of George Floyd was maybe a call to action,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “It felt different. And it felt different around the world, not just here locally.”
A few days after Floyd’s death, Minnesota United midfielder Jacori Hayes saw companies, sports leagues and many others voicing support for the Black Lives Matter movement on social media — for instance, by posting black squares on Instagram in solidarity.
Then he posted on the team’s website.
“What is going to happen when it’s no longer cool to voice these opinions?” the 25-year-old Hayes wrote in a post tweeted by the team to its 150,000 followers. “Will you vote for candidates that lower your taxes but completely disregard the social injustices of minorities? Will you return to silence when I and others like me still face racial prejudice?”
Hayes, who shared the post with his 3,200 Instagram followers and 1,900 Twitter followers, said he’s worried the fervor of that time has faded, and this election — as a litmus test for how Americans view race relations — may show it.
“You can already see some of the people that posted the black squares on social media have maybe gone on to say other things,” Hayes said. “Or another event happened and they’re voicing a conflicting opinion to what the black square was supposed to represent. But I commend a lot of the friends that are still vocal about it.”
Hayes said he has become more active in voicing his views on social media, such as posting pictures of himself wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts. It’s an approach several athletes have been using to encourage people to vote, in part to make voting seem like a trendy thing to do.
Using their platform
“It can be looked at as cool when people see all of us retweeting and reposting stuff,” said 27-year-old Lynx guard Rachel Banham, whose social media reach includes 13,800 followers on Instagram and 11,600 on Twitter. “Like for example when people see Sue Bird or LeBron [James] talking about going out to vote, even kids now who aren’t able to vote might be looking like that like, ‘Wow, I can’t wait to vote.’ ”
It’s a way for athletes to give voice to prominent activists and other political leaders. For example, a simple retweet or repost by James goes to a staggering 48 million followers on Twitter and 74 million on Instagram.
“I’m not an expert in criminal justice reform, but there’s people who have dedicated their lives to that,” Hayes said. “We all have platforms to be able to voice what those professionals are saying.”
That’s also important given that 18% of adults get their news mainly from social media, a Pew research poll found. The figure is believed to be much higher among millennials and Gen Z, the age when people are historically least likely to vote.
“Twitter tells everything,” said Jefferson, with 77,000 followers and 434,000 followers on Instagram. “I’ve been on Twitter seeing everything, just listening to what the president has been saying, seeing what Joe Biden has been saying.”
Not just presidential race
Jefferson said his voting interest extends beyond who will occupy the White House. It’s a point Minnesota teams have been trying to convey to players. Reeve said she was guilty of paying the most attention to the high-profile races on the ballot and not so much the down-ballot races.
“This is why I say I’m so mad at myself, you have these revelations much later in life that the local elections … I would argue some of these other positions are far more important to our daily lives,” Reeve said.
It’s also something the Timberwolves drove home as they said they have registered all their players to vote and helped their families do so with the help of assistant general manager Joe Branch.
“A lot of our people, our ancestors, didn’t have the right to vote,” said Timberwolves forward Jarred Vanderbilt, 21. “It’s very important to not only vote for the presidential election but … who’s in the Senate, who’s a judge, all that stuff.”
‘Stick to sports’ backlash
Locally, the Wolves and Lynx held three voter registration events and have resources through their website available as part of their “Pack the Vote” initiative. The Twins provided similar resources on their website. The Vikings pledged to get 100% of their organization registered to vote. Minnesota United helped make Allianz Field a ballot drop-off site in Ramsey County.
Former Viking Cris Carter partnered with Yahoo to try to increase voter registration while also speaking to NFL players about the issue. Some of their activism, he said, is more behind the scenes than out front, such as getting their families registered to vote.
“Because of everything going on publicly, a lot of guys feel like ‘I got to do something …’ ” Carter said. “There’s different ways they can make an impact.”
Carter said several NFL players still fear the backlash former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick experienced after he began taking a knee during the national anthem to peacefully protest systemic racism and police brutality. Kaepernick hasn’t played for an NFL team since 2016.
For athletes, backlash to taking a stand on political issues can attract comments on social media telling them to “stick to sports.”
“We’re in a unique position where we can inform a lot of the general public of these different issues,” Hayes said. “It’s not on an athlete to be outspoken about different issues if they don’t want to be. It’s definitely on each player if they feel comfortable and want to take on that responsibility.”
Reeve and the Lynx have been among the most outspoken franchises in sports. Four years before Floyd’s death, they wore T-shirts that read, in part, “Change starts with us” and “Black Lives Matter” on the back after the police shooting deaths of Philando Castile in St. Paul and Alton Sterling in Louisiana.
Reeve said if people look up to athletes and expect them to do good in the community, then people shouldn’t be surprised when athletes speak their minds concerning how to accomplish that.
“You can’t say suddenly now an athlete can’t have a voice when you look to them to be so much for your community as leaders,” Reeve said.
After Election Day
Athletes vowed to continue to push for social justice after Tuesday’s elections, though it’s hard to say what that will look like.
Hayes said it’s a waste of energy to try to convince everyone that those changes need to happen. There won’t be 100% agreement, but change can still happen with each election.
“As long as we’re trying to do our best to make those changes every day and in each election, I think we’re doing the right things versus trying to convince others that people are humans or deserve justice just like everyone else,” Hayes said.
Jefferson got to visit President Donald Trump at the White House after LSU won the national championship in January. Trump even joked with Jefferson about the amount of money he would make in the NFL.
“That was one of the best experiences of my life,” Jefferson said. “I didn’t really care too much about who was the president at the time. I just wanted to be there for the experience.”
He didn’t give much thought at the time to voting, the role he can play in saying who gets to occupy that house. But when Floyd died five months later, Jefferson, like others, took that responsibility seriously for the first time.
“I ain’t going to say [voting] is going to solve everything,” Jefferson said. “But I feel like it’s a step. If we all agree on the right person to be in office, that’s just a step in the right direction.”