Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport

Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport

kennedy_obama.jpgJoe Kennedy (lower left) with Craig Robinson (standing, right) while the two coached at Oregon State.All Vote No Play, a new movement to help athletes “see, flex and grow their civic muscles,” uses language its audience can relate to.

There’s a playbook. Civic engagement drills. And video snippets or “chalk talks” from everyone from Stephen Curry and coach Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors to former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.

“The youth voter participation rate jumped from 39 percent in 2016 to 50 percent in 2020,” said Joe Kennedy (BS07), executive director of All Vote No Play. “But we wouldn’t be thrilled with a 50 percent free throw shooting percentage. Let’s get it to 90 percent.”

The initiative, co-founded by Kennedy, Oregon State University basketball coach Eric Reveno and Lisa Kay Solomon, a designer in residence at the Stanford d. school, grew out of an early victory. In 2020, the NCAA passed student-driven legislation giving athletes a day off–election day–to pursue opportunities such as voting or community service.

The NBA jumped on board and nearly 2,000 coaches have since followed suit. All Vote No Play, which won the 2022 “Leading Through Nonpartisanship” award from Students Learn Students Vote, is also working with leading organizations including the Aspen Institute, Andrew Goodman Foundation, Civic Nation, and iCivics.

“More than 500,000 college athletes are largely overlooked by most traditional civics programs and efforts, and yet, these athletes are often some of the most influential and powerful leaders on their campuses,” said Kennedy, who left his role as assistant basketball coach at the College of Holy Cross to lead All Vote No Play. “We increase civic engagement by harnessing the power of athletes.”

The organization, which helped lobby for the NCAA rule, was driven by volunteers until the fall, when Kennedy stepped in as executive director to help create organizational structure, raise funds, and grow the movement.

It was a natural step for the social policy major, who played basketball for the Wildcats, served as team captain his senior season, and was a three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection.

After graduation in 2007, he joined the Obama presidential campaign where he worked in field operations. Later, as a special assistant for the Office of Public Engagement at the White House, he focused on outreach to youth, amateur, and professional sports organizations, as well as other groups.

In 2010, Kennedy returned home to Northwestern as director of men’s basketball operations, a role he held until 2013 when he took over as director of player personnel at Oregon State University. He joined the College of Holy Cross in 2016 where he was heavily involved in recruiting, coaching, scouting, game planning, and player development.

“We’d talk to our guys about life after basketball; the ball will stop bouncing. What are you going to do next?” Kennedy said. “All these things they’ve learned as an athlete­–competing and working under pressure, working with a team, being a leader––these are the skills they need in life.”

Three-quarters of college athletes say they want more opportunities for civic engagement, according to a 2020 NCAA survey.  Since student athletes are already pressed for time, All Vote No Play provides a variety of resources, ranging from five minutes to several hours.

Athletes, for example, could watch a 20-minute documentary called “The Assist,” which details how the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream helped organize, inspire, and mobilize votes in the 2020 Georgia Senate Race.

Those with more time could volunteer to work at a local polling center, visit a school on #AllVoteNoPlay day, or dream up a way to use the NCAA’s new Name, Image and Likeness rule. In addition to personal branding, athletes could sponsor a game day for foster kids or seeing if donors would support a player-run sports camp for underprivileged youth.

“Civic engagement makes the invisible become visible,” said School of Education and Social Policy undergraduate Jacob Rosner, a member of the Wildcat men’s swimming team who interned with Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md) and his Democracy Summer Program. “We get caught up in our own life, and civic engagement challenges us to escape the bubble and work for others.”

Kennedy believes that if students develop civic habits in college, they’ll be more likely to vote and feel a sense of commitment to the community as they grow older.

“It’s not just about voting in a presidential election,” he said. “It’s about engaging in your local community and voting in races like school board, city council, judges. It’s about participating in life.”

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 2/21/23