The COVID-19 pandemic forced college sports to be cancelled at UD this fall, but civic involvement among Flyers athletes is at an all-time high.
It’s the same on many college campuses across the nation.
A confluence of factors has contributed to this.
--The global pandemic that has infected over 7.4 million Americans, killed close to 210,000 and now has President Donald Trump hospitalized with the virus.
--The polarizing politics that have divided this nation leading up to the presidential election pitting Trump against his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.
--Social unrest triggered by systemic racism and, most notably, the police killings of unarmed Black people. There’s also the growing concerns of climate change and the economic downturn that, in the case of many students, intensifies their staggering college debt.
--And there’s the heightened role that social media plays in magnifying all these issues and giving everyone a platform to voice their thoughts.
While that has prompted some college students to take to the streets in protest, it’s made many others realize the power they have, the impact they can make, by going to the ballot box, regardless of which side of the political divide they stand on.
Pushing aside that narrow-minded putdown of athletes by one popular TV talk show host to “just shut up and dribble,” athletes have found they can sign up and vote.
The push among UD athletes began with the UD basketball teams, said Jones. Thanks in part to their coaches, they had Zoom meeting discussions amongst themselves, listened to various speakers from around the campus and the community and eventually came to SAAC to see what help they could get.
Jones said SAAC then turned to UDayton Votes, which already was addressing voting issues with the general population on campus.
Speyer and UDayton Votes team leader Erin DeCero led the effort among the athletes. Other members of their group include Hannah Hoby, Abby Medler and Kaylyn Dailey.
UDayton Votes began an extraordinary campaign with Flyers athletes and held Zoom meetings with each of the 17 teams. It explained everything from how to register to vote and how to obtain an absentee ballot to how to learn about various issues and even how to form a personal voting plan.
The NCAA understands the importance of these efforts and has instructed all Division I programs not to schedule practices or competitions on Nov. 3 so athletes can vote and attend to other civic duties that day, including signing up to be poll watchers.
UDayton Votes table set up on campus Friday. Left to right are students Erin DeCero, Abby Medler and Hannah Hoby. Tom Archdeacon/STAFF
Friday afternoon UDayton Votes was able to have its first face-to-face contact with students on campus.
COVID-19 – which has infected 1,270 people on the UD campus since Aug. 10 – has been brought mostly under control and the virus warning has been downgraded to Green Level 2 – Localized status.
UDayton Votes set up a table inside the entrance to the campus post office at the rear of the UD Bookstore from 1 to 4 p.m. Three members answered a variety of questions from students who stopped by and they helped those still needing to register to vote – that deadline in Ohio is Monday – to do so online.
They also provided information about obtaining mail in absentee ballots for those who would not be able to get home to vote in person.
“We’re sort of a one-stop-shop,” DeCero said with a laugh that came from behind the black mask she wore.
A lot of people on campus have reached out to UDayton Votes, which likely is a sign that young voters will turn out more this year than they have in past elections.
According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a non-partisan, independent research organization based at Tufts University that focuses on youth civic engagement in the United States, only 39 percent of young adults (ages 18 to 29) voted in the last presidential election and just 20 percent voted in the 2018 midterms.
But the group could have real clout. There are 47 million 18 to 29 years olds eligible to vote in November, including 15 million who turned 18 since the 2016 presidential election. Speyer and DeCero are part of that group.
At 23, Jones is a little older than them. He thinks UD students are more dialed into the upcoming election this year:
“I was a freshman here during the 2016 election and it wasn’t discussed as much as this year. Now politics are in the forefront of a lot of conversations here, along with sports and social media and pop culture.”
‘I found my calling’
Jones grew up in Bellefontaine. He got some athletic genes from his dad – Brad Jones played college baseball at Ball State – and he also can thank him for his appreciation of politics.
“My dad is a government teacher at Benjamin Logan High School and when I was like in the sixth grade, I’d ride with him and stay in his classroom an hour after school as he graded papers,” Jones said. “I had nothing to do so I’d pick up a book and read about history and government. Because of that my dad and I always had something to talk about and he became a big influence in my passion for politics.”
UD baseball player Tyler Jones (right) and dad, Brad Jones, government teacher at Ben Logan High and a former baseball player at Ball State University. CONTRIBUTED
Each of his first four years at UD, Jones was named to the A-10 Commissioner’s Honor Roll, which salutes excellence in the classroom. Last year he made the Dean’s List with a 4.0 GPA and for the 2019 baseball season – which was not cut short by the virus like 2020 – he pitched in 23 games, had five saves and his 2.97 ERA was second best on the team
Although he graduated in May, he decided to accept the NCAA eligibility extension and play next spring while taking grad courses now.
He was the president of the faith-based Athletes in Action last season and became the SAAC president this year.
He was one of 16 UD honors students who took part in the DC Flyers Summer Internship Program in Washington. D.C. He worked for Congressman Mike Turner, answering phones, doing research, helping with correspondence to constituents and giving Capitol tours.
“I found my calling when I went to DC,” he said. “One day soon I hope to work there full time in politics.”
Inspiration from former Ohio governor
Speyer is a political science major who grew up in Medina. Her dad manages a pharmaceutical sales company and her mom is a personal trainer and co-owns a gym.
She credits Our Lady of the Elms, the small, all-girls Catholic school in Akron she graduated from, for nurturing her interest in civic involvement:
“They really pushed us to use our voice and get out there and make a difference. I helped organize rallies, we did prayer services for political things and I helped campaigns.”
She played soccer in high school, but once at UD she was recruited to the Flyers rowing team by a senior crew member. In 2019, she was part of the Flyers Varsity 4+ team that won the petite finals at the Atlantic 10 Championship in New Jersey.
Although new to the sport, she said she loves her team and especially “mornings on the water watching the sun rise on the Great Miami River. You can’t beat that.”
Her other passion is politics.
She’s said she’s been especially inspired taking a class from former Ohio Governor Bob Taft, who has been part of the UD staff for 13 years, is involved in several non-partisan issues around the state and serves as an advisor for UDayton Votes.
Like Jones, Speyer, too, hopes for a future in politics.
Emma Speyer with UD rowing teammate Colleen McDonnell taking piggy-back ride. CONTRIBUTED
Pro athletes getting involved
As Election Day approaches, it’s not just college athletes who are finding a civic commitment.
LeBron James, the Ohio-raised basketball legend who has now led the Los Angeles Lakers into the NBA Finals, recently launched More Than a Vote, a voting rights coalition that, among other things, is aimed at protecting the voting rights of African Americans.
Among others involved in the group are the Atlanta Hawks Trae Young, Phoenix Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, former NBA star and ESPN analyst Jalen Rose, Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints and comedian Kevin Hart.
With voter suppression efforts already seen the past few months in places like Texas, Wisconsin and Georgia, the group has focused on Florida, where over 1.4 million formerly incarcerated citizens who already paid their debt to society have been denied access to the ballot box.
In the 2018 election, Florida voters passed Amendment 4 by 30 percent to reinstate voting rights to Floridians who had past felony convictions. The state legislature and governor then pushed through a law requiring those same people to first pay outstanding fines and other fees before being allowed to vote.
James' group has teamed up with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition to help pay those fines and allow people the right to cast a ballot.
Some NBA teams are offering their arenas as easy-access polling places for the upcoming election and other pro basketball and hockey teams are giving employees Election Day off with pay if they help at a polling place in need.
“Hopefully someday down the line people will recognize me not only for the way I approached the game of basketball, but the way I approached life as an African-African man,” James said recently.
Two years ago he started a grade school for disadvantaged kids in his hometown of Akron and promised graduates a free education at the University of Akron. With over 136 million Twitter and Instagram followers, James has found a voice beyond sports, and, in their own way, that is what some UD student athletes are doing, as well.
“I love that I can have a voice, have a say in things that directly impact my life” Speyer said. “And I want to relay that same thing to other people, too.”
She said part of her effort has been to make other athletes realize the coming election isn’t just about voting for a president. It’s helping decide issues that will directly impact them, whether its levies and school board races at their old high school or city, county and state issues.
Jones experienced a similar effort paying off the other day:
"As a political science major, it really tugged my heartstrings when I got a call from one of my teammates. He wanted to know what was going on with the Supreme Court nomination. We had a short, 10- minute conversation, talking about the process and why each side feels as it does.
“To me, that was really wonderful. Other athletes are taking an interest.”