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‘I didn’t think my vote counted’: Why Bradley Beal is voting for the first time

Once hesitant to take a stand, the Wizards guard has jumped into the political arena hoping to make an impact

For the first seven years of his career, Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal shied away from being vocal about issues to avoid being the target of political zealots.

“I hate politics,” Beal said of his general mindset. “With politics comes judgments, and when you speak out, that’s when the ‘shut up and dribbles’ come out.”

But in 2020, during his eighth professional season and amid a global pandemic and worldwide protests, Beal found motivation to leap into the political realm.

“I have two boys,” Beal said, “and, while they won’t be raised the way I was raised, the decisions we make today ultimately impacts what happens to them down the road.”

There’s a lot at stake in the 2020 election — including economic inequality, a growing health crisis and political decency — that will impact Beal’s sons. That’s why the 27-year-old NBA star is voting for the first time.

Beal represents a new awakening for professional athletes who have thrust themselves into this year’s political process. The tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others have fueled athletes to become vocal participants. And among all the professional sports leagues, the NBA and WNBA have assumed the most prominent roles in encouraging people to vote.

Voter registration was one of the NBA’s main platforms when play resumed in July and, as a result, the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) says more than 90% of its members who are eligible American voters are now registered. Last week the NBPA announced a $350,000 donation ($250,000 from proceeds from the 2019-20 season restart jersey auction) to support 18 organizations that work to increase voter turnout and combat voter suppression.

The WNBA, which has been a leader among all professional sports leagues on social issues, also introduced a platform in August called “Unite the Vote” in an effort to enable each of the league’s 12 teams to register as many voters as possible.

Earlier this year, Beal joined Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud to lead a march on Juneteenth through the streets of Washington. Beal has quickly gotten comfortable in his new role of speaking out against police brutality and encouraging people to vote.

“I’ve had to educate myself,” Beal said. “I’ve been looking into the history of my family, my grandparents and learning about the struggles they had in gaining the right to vote.”

During the summer, Beal expressed regret that he remained silent following the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, which occurred not far from the NBA star’s hometown of St. Louis. He said he was wrong for thinking for most of his career that professional athletes didn’t really have a voice.

“As a basketball player, I just felt like I was removed as a citizen of the world and thought, ‘we don’t have a voice, we don’t have an opinion,’ ” Beal said. “It’s kind of F’d up in a way.

“But the NBA and the NBPA are supporting us and giving us a voice to use our platforms to be able to speak out and be the voices of people who aren’t heard, and the people who are underserved.”

Playing for the Wizards, Beal sees underserved communities regularly, especially when he drives to the Entertainment and Sports Arena (the team’s practice facility and the home to the Mystics) in Ward 8, one of the most economically challenged areas in Washington.

“To grow up in that type of environment to now, where I see it daily, we’re still not removed from it,” Beal said. “Those are the people we have to utilize our platform for.”

While a shoulder injury prevented Beal from accompanying the Wizards for their brief stretch in the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, he was thrilled to watch the games and see the messaging during every contest.

“We wanted to continue to see Black Lives Matter on the court, and that there’s going to be a commercial on the issue after every free throw break, until you were sick of seeing it,” Beal said. “And every sport was doing it, which makes it so funny to me when you tell basketball players to just shut up and dribble. We just have to ignore all the ignorance and try to reach those who want to come together and change.”

It isn’t just Beal lending his voice to the voting efforts. Other players from the Wizards, Mystics and Washington Capitals, which all fall under the Monumental Sports and Entertainment umbrella, are also stepping up.

“I’ve moved around so much that I never really had a chance to establish roots where I could vote,” said Wizards guard Ish Smith. “Now I’m Googling all of the local races, and having political debates with my sister, my mom and my girlfriend.”

The events of this year and the activism that was encouraged by the NBA in the bubble forced Smith, playing with his 11th NBA team, to slow down and take a closer look at the political process.

“I’ve learned that politics is crazy, and I realize that when I’m in Starbucks with my mask on and hearing the different things that people are saying about different topics,” Smith said. “All that I hear makes me want to further educate myself so that, when it comes to the day that I vote, I’m making a rational — and not emotional — decision.”

Many sports venues around the country will be used as voting sites for the Nov. 3 presidential election. Voting has already started at some of those venues, including big turnouts in Atlanta (State Farm Arena is offering free COVID-19 tests and flu shots with early voting), Los Angeles and New York.

In Washington, that includes the Capital One Arena (home of the Wizards and Capitals) and the Entertainment and Sports Arena (ESA), both large-scale venues that have been classified as voting supercenters. Nationals Park will also serve as a voting supercenter. All will be open to voters on Oct. 27 and through Election Day.

The ESA was named a voting site after nudging from Cloud, who encouraged the move in a series of tweets.

The efforts of the Mystics, Wizards and Capitals have been fully supported by Monumental Sports.

“When you see them giving of themselves — their energy and their opinions — it’s inspiring,” said John Thompson III, vice president of player engagement for Monumental Basketball. “With Bradley, there’s a growth and maturity with him where he now understands he can make a difference.”

While Beal said he isn’t trying to tell people who to vote for, he wants them to consider what’s going on in the world as they make their decision.

“Educate yourselves, and understand what’s at stake,” Beal said. “I was one of those guys in a different generation who didn’t vote because I didn’t think my vote counted. So here I am today preaching the exact opposite. Your vote matters.”

Early voting indicates that there will be a record turnout for this year’s presidential election, and Beal likes to think that the efforts of professional athletes have played a small part in the increased numbers.

“Athletes are role models and mentors and people value what we say, so I think what we’ve done has helped,” Beal said. “Seeing the numbers of early voters is an eye-opener, and it shows everybody is putting their heads together, diving into change and showing how they can affect the world.”

Beal said that between now and Election Day he’ll be working in St. Louis and Washington to convince those to get out and vote.

“I’ll definitely volunteer and if they allow me to work the polls in Washington, I will,” Beal said. “It’s great that they’re using our arena as a polling place, and I’m hoping that’ll bring a big turnout.”

In a year where he thrust himself into the political process, Beal said that 2020 won’t be a one-off.

“My grandparents were born in the 1930s, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that they earned the right to vote,” Beal said. “They’re blessed to be able to see how far we’ve come today. But to see how far we still have to go, it’s important we keep up the fight.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.