One day after a practice in early September, Isaiah Waller and his football teammates at Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School were told by their coach, Derrick Avery, to join a video conference call. When they logged on later that night, up popped the faces of three Atlanta Falcons players — Ricardo Allen, Alex Mack and Steven Means.
Stunned to see players from their hometown N.F.L. team, the 30 or so teenagers were even more surprised by what they were there to tell them: Nothing about the x’s and o’s of the game, but to work at the polls on Election Day.
So on Tuesday, Waller and about 10 of his teammates, as well as players from high schools in the coastal city of Savannah and Gwinnett County outside Atlanta, will be spending all day at Georgia polling centers as election workers, a small victory for the Falcons who have redoubled their community activism efforts amid a summer and fall of social unrest.
“It’s something I never really paid attention to because I didn’t have a vote, but now that I’m getting older, I’m starting to get more involved,” said Waller, 17, who will work Tuesday in Fulton County, which is home to Atlanta and, with over 1 million people, is the state’s most-populous county. “Seeing the players on TV, I idolize them, and one day I want to be like them. It shows that they care about issues that we care about.”
The N.F.L. has historically shied away from allowing politically related messaging to appear alongside its branding, even as some team owners have overtly supported candidates and causes on their own. Before 2020, it would have been unthinkable for an N.F.L. team to wade into politics by stenciling a message like “End Racism” onto the end zone. But in a year when some of its best-known players have pushed the league to support a more progressive stance regarding social justice initiatives and player activism for racial equality, the league has allowed for more direct messaging supporting voter turnout, a major departure from past election years.
More than a dozen franchises will close their stadiums and facilities to football activities and allow them to be used as election centers or polling stations, joining 23 N.B.A. teams. But few teams have been as aggressive in their community outreach as the Falcons, whose social justice committee made voting participation a priority as it searched for a response to racial upheaval in America this year, a journey The New York Times is following this season.
Allen, Mack, Means and other players on the 12-member social justice committee have spoken to half a dozen high school football teams this fall on calls with about 20 players at a time. After the players got the students motivated to help, Falcons team officials helped connect the high-schoolers with local officials to set up their volunteer work for Election Day.
The stakes are high in Georgia. In addition to the 2020 presidential election, there are two contentious Senate races in the state this year and, after 20 years of reliably Republican support, Georgia is a battleground state that Democrats are trying to flip. It is also a state where racial inequality and voter suppression have been prominent issues in past elections, offering a real-life civics lesson for high school students on the connection between elections and social change.
Joshua Peterson, 16, is one of two players to register to work at the polls from the Groves High School football team in Savannah. He and his teammates participate in other volunteer programs, like delivering donated mattresses to families in need. But working at the polls is a bigger responsibility, Peterson said. “It’s important for us to give back to the community, and ownership of your life and destiny.”
Youth participation would help to offset the droves of older poll workers who are sitting out this election season because of the pandemic. The N.F.L.’s coronavirus protocols — heightened after outbreaks around the league — have severely limited players from traveling beyond their homes and the team facility. So while the Falcons players have spent months emphasizing their message to the students on virtual conference calls, they won’t be able to show up in person to support the teenagers who participate.
Persuading even a few young people to take action has added some significance to a Falcons season that has largely gone the wrong way on the field. Atlanta has a 2-6 record and sits in last place in its division. The team fired its head coach, Dan Quinn, and its general manager, Thomas Dimitroff, in mid-October.
Before the season started, players on the team’s three-year-old social justice committee searched for more impactful methods of grass-roots activism after team-wide conference calls and meetings with local leaders following George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police in May. The committee decided that one area where it could make a bigger impact on voter engagement was speaking directly with high school football players, whom they figured would share a connection over being athletes.
Their calls, which usually lasted about 45 minutes and took place after practices, started with Falcons players riffing on what they know of the legislative process, then taking questions from the students, who asked about activism as well as football concerns, like how the players cope with so much losing.
On one such call, Allen, who is Black, recounted being pulled over by the police and being afraid that he was being racially profiled for driving an expensive car. If the students want to change policing methods, Allen said, they should get involved in their communities. King Walker, a linebacker at Washington High School, said he was surprised that Falcons players were confronted by the same issues he faced. Walker said his mother often reminds him to drive carefully to avoid being stopped by police and not to wear a hoodie when he jogs in his neighborhood not far from the Falcons’ home stadium.
“It left me with a really strong feeling because hearing from people that are kind of famous,” Walker said. “It was surprising because you think once you get to a certain status in life, you see the rules still apply, the same things that happen to ordinary people.”
Many of the Falcons players have gone beyond the conference calls with local students to promote voter participation, in both subtle and more explicit ways. During pregame warm-ups players wear T-shirts with “Vote” written across their chests in block letters. Some have used their own social media accounts to send get-out-the-vote messages or to support the team’s Rise Up & Vote initiative.
But their connection to the high school football players may have a more lasting impact, according to Nse Ufot, chief executive of the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan group that helps register Georgians, particularly in communities of color. She said celebrities can persuade people to participate if they echo messages already being sent by trusted friends, family members or coaches.
“Micro influencers are more powerful than the super-famous people,” she said. But “as a part of the larger push to promote voting, they are super effective in reinforcing messages.”
The football players from Washington High School who work at the polls this year may become more engaged in future years, she said.
Like his teammates, Sir Amos was not involved in politics before the call with the Falcons. But he said that working on Election Day may be the most valuable lesson he has ever learned from football.
“Right now, I’m not into politics, but as I get older I know it will be,” he said. Their talk “gave me insight on where I want to be in my life, and if they can do it, then I can, too.”