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.