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Over the past month, basketball players, coaches and teams have been the people in sports speaking out the loudest about social justice. But now they're stepping that up a notch. Multiple franchises have volunteered their facilities to serve as polling places for elections this fall. NPR's Miles Parks has more.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Renee Montgomery is well-acquainted with Atlanta's State Farm Arena. It's where her WNBA team, the Atlanta Dream, play their home games.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Three-pointer for Renee Montgomery - pops it up and they have about four-point play opportunity. Scoops it to Montgomery - seven. Yes. Boy, is she dialed in or what?
PARKS: This fall, however, she won't be using the arena. Voters will.
RENEE MONTGOMERY: You know, there was a problem there and a need there.
PARKS: With four months left to go until the election, officials across the U.S. are frantically searching for places that are centrally located and big enough to allow voters to socially distance. Three NBA teams - Atlanta, Detroit and Milwaukee - stepped up this week to volunteer their spaces. The arenas could be game changers for a number of reasons. Montgomery noted that Atlanta's transit system runs directly to her team's home court.
MONTGOMERY: People can't get to the polls. So when you talk about arenas and you talk about different places like that, well, now you have public transit that can get there.
PARKS: In Atlanta, hundreds of stadium staff will also be trained as poll workers, which could solve another voting problem that the pandemic has created.
JOSH DOUGLAS: You can only have so many polling sites as you have people to work them.
PARKS: That's Josh Douglas, an election law professor at the University of Kentucky. Election officials in Lexington successfully turned that school's football stadium into a voting center for the state's primary last week. Douglas said training stadium employees means election officials can allocate poll workers to other voting sites.
DOUGLAS: Not only do they have the size capacities, but theoretically, they have workers who know the space. And if we can get them trained, as long as they're - you know, they're younger and healthy and not as high-risk, that allows election officials to have more flexibility in the number of polling sites they can open.
PARKS: LeBron James' new voter outreach organization, More Than A Vote, has been big in pushing for the idea. And overall, the initiative represents another step in basketball's growing influence in politics. More than 80% of the NBA's players are people of color. Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said the league's growing political voice is linked to the activism happening elsewhere in the country.
LLOYD PIERCE: All of these things are starting to intertwine. Someone may talk about being a Black player or a Black person in America. Then it gets intertwined with how it affects them politically, how it affects them economically, how it affects them via education. And so how can you not speak on this?
PARKS: I asked Montgomery, the Atlanta Dream player, about whether she thought this year's focus on politics and basketball would be temporary, either driven by the pandemic or the protests or even President Trump. She said no. She's planning to sit out the shortened WNBA schedule this year to focus on highlighting social issues and working on voter outreach. She expects this to be the new normal in sports.
MONTGOMERY: Athletes are going to feel that their voice matters. A lot of times, athletes were timid about speaking out because if you speak out and the team doesn't like it, because the corporate sponsors don't like it, now you're in trouble. Well, that excuse can't really be there anymore.
PARKS: Pierce said the same thing - that basketball players will stay vocal even after 2020. When you give someone a platform, he said, you can't just take it away.
Miles Parks, NPR News.
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