'Go out there and vote, use that right': How the Chicago Bears are using voter education and initiatives to help their local communities

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After Chicago Bears players canceled a preseason practice in the wake of a police shooting of Jacob Blake in August in Kenosha, Wis., they talked about how they hoped to address social injustice and police brutality.

Inside linebacker Danny Trevathan was vocal about one way to promote change: voting those into office who might help. And he said Friday he has already exercised that choice.

“My family’s big on using your rights,” he said. “Back in the day, we (African-Americans) didn’t have those rights, as you know. People worked hard for us to have that right to vote. I think it’s very, very important that I, myself and many others like myself go out there and vote, to use that right. … It’s very important we use our platform to speak our voice on it and try to influence people to go out there and do the same.”

The NFL and the Bears have made an effort this year to promote voting, one of several areas players have focused on as they try to use their voices to impact their communities during a time of national unrest, COVID-19 and a divisive election.

NFL and team facilities will be closed for Election Day on Tuesday, a decision made in September in conjunction with the NFLPA to ensure every player, coach and staff member has a chance to vote.

Bears players are usually off Mondays and working at Halas Hall on Tuesdays, but coach Matt Nagy said they will flip that schedule this week to accommodate the closures.

“It’s a good thing and I know our guys are going to be excited to be able to partake in all that,” Nagy said.

The NFL reported last week that 90% of players had registered to vote. The Bears offered to register players during training camp. More than half of NFL stadiums are being used as polling places. Soldier Field is not one of them, but the Bears have displayed reminders to vote. The word “vote” was painted in front of the goal post in the south end zone and along both sidelines for Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints.

The Bears partnered with Rock the Vote and consulted the local election board to find out how they could best help. Bears players and coaches recorded public service announcements for TV and radio spots. That included offensive line coach Juan Castillo, who did them in Spanish.

“Justice and equality start with your ballot,” safety Tashaun Gipson says in one.

“Let your voice be heard — vote,” cornerback Buster Skrine adds.

The Bears have a website — chicagobears.com/vote — that offers voting information. And Bears rookie wide receiver Darnell Mooney said there have been conversations among the team about voting.

“It’s not telling you exactly who to vote for,” Mooney said. “It’s just giving you more of a mindset of what and who you’d want to vote for. It’s a big thing, something I’ve never been a part of, and I greatly appreciate it.”

For the Bears, voter education and encouragement initiatives are part of a larger body of work to try to effect change in local communities. That work is something the Bears have done for a long time, but it of course is more challenging this year because of limitations brought on by COVID-19.

“It’s much easier to connect with people face to face than over a virtual Zoom call,” said Matt Simeone, the Bears’ director of community and alumni relations. “That’s something we’ve had to get used to and the Bears have had to get used to. …

“During the offseason we figured out that less is more. A lot of times especially on a Zoom call, even 15-20 people on a call can get a little chaotic, so we’ve really tried to size those calls down, whether it be with a family or two or at the most 8-10 students so it doesn’t get overwhelming.”

Another challenge is that much of the Bears staff doesn’t have direct contact with the players this year. Bears director of player engagement LaMar “Soup” Campbell has been instrumental in helping connect players with causes they are interested in, Simeone said. The Bears also have posted a community board outside of one locker room so players can find opportunities that suit them.

For example, inside linebacker Roquan Smith did a virtual visit with patients at Advocate Children’s Hospital.

Bears players have done recent virtual visits with READI Chicago, City Year and the Youth Guidance Becoming a Man program and continue to stay connected with My Block, My Hood, My City, all of which serve Chicago communities. Simeone was struck by wide receiver Anthony Miller’s virtual visit earlier this year with participants from the Dovetail Project, which aims to help young fathers.

And wide receiver Allen Robinson and safety Deon Bush held their own virtual fundraisers apart from the team. Robinson raised more than $110,000, including his own $40,000 contribution, for his Within Reach Foundation. And Bush raised $9,000 for the Boys and Girls Club of Lake County.

“Our PR staff and our community relations staff have done a good job of that, keeping it in the forefront for us,” left tackle Charles Leno said. “Sometimes you can lose sight of that in a season like this, but we’ve been doing a good job.”

After the Kenosha police shooting, players wanted to go to the Wisconsin city just 30 miles north of Halas Hall to connect with youths there, but the Bears ruled it out because of COVID-19. So the players instead created a video to send to the Kenosha Boys and Girls Club, with messages of encouragement from prominent players such as Akiem Hicks and David Montgomery.

“They really wanted to go up there, but with everything going on with COVID, that’s tough, so they decided they wanted to send this video,” Simeone said. “And the kids, they were really excited about it.

“The message was stay strong, keep your head up. The guys talked about the variety of things, including the struggles going on today with social justice and also what those kids are dealing with on a daily basis with COVID. But I think it was an overall message of encouragement.”

Trevathan said players using their platforms for such encouragement is crucial.

“Everybody’s going through the same thing,” he said. “We’re all going through this together. It’s important that we go out here and show people that they’re not alone. We’re all going to come out on top of this.”


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