Jaden Springer noticed the sticker on Kim English’s shirt at Tennessee basketball practice last week.
“You voted, coach?” the Tennessee freshman asked the Vols assistant coach, just as UT basketball director of operations Mary-Carter Eggert walked over to Springer carrying his absentee ballot from North Carolina.
Springer, who turned 18 in late September, told English he had never voted before.
“I told him his state is an important state,” English said. “It is a swing state. He asked what that means and I explained it to him and that there’s not many of them.”
That brief explanation capped months of voter education and conversations spanning the emotions of seeing George Floyd’s death on camera, social injustice protests and dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic that have taken place across Tennessee athletics.
Springer, like many of his teammates and fellow UT athletes who come to Knoxville from around the country, registered to vote for the first time in the 2020 presidential election.
To help these young voters, the Tennessee athletic department provided nonpartisan education on voter registration, the voting process, types of elections and more in the months leading to the Nov. 3 election.
“Our process has been regardless of who you vote for, your vote matters,” said Jess Wildfire, an executive director for student-athlete development at UT. “You have the ability to impact your community in this way and decisions that are made in your community by voting.”
At least 425 Tennessee athletes registered to vote through the student-athlete development office and many others registered independently, UT spokesperson Tom Satkowiak said. All eligible voters on the basketball, women’s basketball, women’s tennis, volleyball and softball rosters registered to vote in the 2020 election, while many other sports approached roster-wide registration.
The NCAA mandated schools give athletes Nov. 3 off without practices or competitions.
“We just want them to exercise their rights as American citizens,” English said. “We are not asking or promoting our players to be activists if they do not want to. We want them to read, be educated and we want to be there for them and support them in whatever they may be feeling.
“We support our student-athletes in whatever they are feeling in these times.”
How UT provided nonpartisan education
Conversations with athletes in June sparked the voter education process from the student-athlete development office. Staffers organized and provided educational materials.
Wildfire said athletes were motivated to vote, but needed more information “because it can be a really convoluted process.” The department partnered with on-campus organizations, including the staff at the Howard J. Baker Center for Public Policy and the Student-Athletic Advisory Council, and local groups such as the Knoxville/Knox County League of Women Voters.
UT hosted a Zoom meeting to discuss voter registration, absentee ballots and the importance of local elections. The student-athlete development staff followed up with websites on how to register in each state.
“We focused on