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Early last week, Anquan Boldin’s wife received a text message that made Boldin, a former NFL wide receiver and co-founder of the Players Coalition, smile.
It was from Boldin’s brother-in-law, an ex-felon who was celebrating because he’d just voted for the first time since he was 18. It was made possible, in part, by the Nov. 2018 passage of Florida Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to 1.4 million citizens with felony convictions unrelated to murder or sexual offenses.
“He was actually crying after he voted, and I think he’s in his mid-40s, so for me, it was personal,” said Boldin, who also has a brother who lost his right to vote to a felony conviction. “When you say felony, most people think something horrendous ... but it’s easy to get a felony just for trespassing, or you can get a felony for driving a certain mile per hour over the speed limit.
“I think having 1.4 million people have the right to vote again was big for the state of Florida.”
Two years later, Boldin, who recently spoke to Yahoo Sports in a phone interview, says the passage of the legislation was also big for the credibility of the Players Coalition, which consists of athletes who have partnered with the NFL to pursue social justice and racial equality through lobbying and legislation.
“I felt initially, people had questions about what we were really doing because of our partnership with the NFL,” Boldin said. “But my message to everybody that was a partner of the Players Coalition was, don’t go out and advocate about what you’re doing — let’s just do the work. And once you do the work, the work will speak for itself. You won’t have to go out and fight these battles about people saying, ‘Oh, they’re not legit or they’re a show for the NFL.’”
Players Coalition works on voting initiatives
After spending a year working on Florida Amendment 4, the Players Coalition has had no shortage of other victories, ranging from reforms on education to youth justice to criminal justice and, most recently, voting rights.
In regards to the latter, the organization has already supported successful legislation that restored voting rights to ex-felons in Louisiana, in addition to legislation in Michigan that reduced gerrymandering and simplified the absentee voting process.
The Players Coalition is now supporting an initiative in California called Prop 17, which would restore the right to vote for 50,000 Californians who have completed their prison term.
With Election Day finally upon us, the Players Coalition has remained busy — even though the group has stayed away from supporting particular candidates.
“We’re bipartisan,” Boldin said. “We just want to make sure people are educated, and when you educate people, they can make the right vote for themselves.”
In that vein, one of its initiatives this year is Ride to Vote, which will provide voters in Chicago and Florida’s Palm Beach County — where Boldin, a star at Pahokee High School, grew up — with free rides to the polls on Tuesday. The goal is to increase voter turnout.
“The only thing they have to do is get to a bus stop, and they’ll get a voucher to make sure they’ll get to the polls to vote,” Boldin said.
Boldin began to activate the idea when he witnessed the difficulties that people in certain areas of his county had while working on another pet project of his — helping people get access to reliable COVID-19 testing.
“We had testing sites in my area, and if you get to the testing site, you can get tested,” Boldin said. “But my thing was, what about those communities who don’t have rides? You’re talking about the hood or whatever, what if I don’t have access to a car? How do we make sure they have the ability to get tested as well?
“So what we did was, we brought the testing right to the hood. You can either ride up or walk up. So if you don’t have transportation, you still have the ability to get tested.”
Vaughn Bryant, a former NFL player, spearheaded the effort in Chicago, which led to the Coalition purchasing $2,000 worth of Chicago Transit Authority tickets, all of which will be distributed to those in need around the city. Boldin went to work in Palm Beach County after realizing that many of the same people who lacked access to COVID-19 testing were having similar issues voting.
He reached out to a lot of the same people who helped him get the expanded COVID-19 testing in Palm Beach County, including Quantum Foundation, a private grant-making organization, and several local officials. The result? Boldin said they were able to make sure people could also get free rides to the polls from Oct. 19, the start of early voting in Florida, to Election Day.
They were also able to get more polling sites in Palm Beach County and create educational forms for the public to give people an idea of who they were voting for and, more important, the policies those politicians supported.
“It’s about educating people on how to vote, getting people registered to vote and then helping them get to the polls to vote,” Boldin said. “Because it’s one thing to get people registered, but if they don’t vote, then all of that work was for nothing.”
Education around local races a priority for Players Coalition
That’s a small sample of what the Players Coalition has tried to do nationally in regards to the election. In addition to supporting multiple campaigns championing voter awareness and voter restoration across America, the Players Coalition has also hosted a few town halls in multiple states, the latter of which Boldin says have been beneficial for the candidates and the communities alike.
“There’s a lot of town halls that we go to … and you go to these communities and people can’t even tell you who their DA [district attorney] is, or they don’t know that the DA is an elected official,” Boldin said. “So when you go to these town halls and you educate people on who these people are, and you let them know what their job entails.”
Boldin said his hope is that this will help people understand that state and local elections matter.
“These are the people who affect your everyday lives, your sheriffs, your mayors … your voice is so much more important in these local elections,” he said.
He also hopes it helps prevent another situation such as the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, when the district attorney initially declined to press charges before the case went to a grand jury.
“A lot of this stuff can be prevented if we put the right people in these positions,” Boldin said. “So now people understand that they have the ability to effect change in this way. I get to say who my DA is. I get to pick a person who doesn’t mind prosecuting an officer when they’re in the wrong. That in itself is empowering to the community.”
The success of the Coalition’s efforts have empowered Boldin, who won a Super Bowl, made three Pro Bowls and was named Walter Payton Man of the Year during his 15-year NFL career. He now feels like he has found his true calling.
“I always said, ‘If God put me on this earth to play football, then I got cheated,’” he said. “If you’re lucky, you retire or get cut or whenever in your 30s, but I feel like I was put here for more than just football, and I think what I’m doing now definitely has a greater purpose than me playing football. Football allowed me to have this platform, but now I have the ability to affect change in people’s lives everyday. You get to alter peoples’ future.”
The positive feedback he regularly gets, ranging from people he knows to those he doesn’t (like the older man in Delray Beach, Florida, who recently approached him while running errands), keeps him going.
“He said he was in a wheelchair and he lived alone, and he was like, ‘There’s no way I would have been able to get to the site on my own, so I appreciate what you guys are doing,’” recalled Boldin, who was always a local celebrity in Palm Beach County but is nevertheless being approached more. “I could be in the grocery and someone will be like, ‘Hey bro, I appreciate the work that you guys are doing, keep it up,’ — and I’m talking about white and Black. Same thing about keeping people tested and providing rides to the polls.”
Even when Election Day passes, the group’s work will not be done, as the Players Coalition’s focus will continue to be on state and municipal elections.
“We just want to continue to educate people on who’s running, the positions they hold and the policies they’re pushing so that people will know and can make a change in their local communities,” Boldin said.
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