How the Lady Bulldogs left their footprint as Stegeman Coliseum became a polling site

Georgia has led initiatives with voter registration and other efforts throughout the Athens community.

Georgia players and staff members pose outside of a polling center in Athens, Ga. ahead of the Nov. 3, 2020 general election. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Leonard — Georgia Basketball)

ATHENS, Ga. — Over the summer months, a feeling of pain permeated throughout a predominantly-Black group of players and coaches within the Georgia women’s basketball program. Plenty of discussions commenced, because deep-rooted emotions needed unpacking.

Georgia head coach Joni Taylor, the university’s lone Black head coach, saw the same thing as her 13 players, the assistant coaches and the support staff. The numerous deaths with racial undertones — two of which took place within their own state with Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Ga. and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta — left a scar. They had questions. A lot about those instances aren’t yet understood.

The talks were productive, heartfelt and focused on life away from basketball. It’s not much different than any other time, because it’s one of the program’s core values. But, in these instances, it felt more vital than ever.

Taylor shared some of her own first-hand experiences as a Black girl raised in Meridian, Miss. The players had a chance to expand upon personal experiences that didn’t make national headlines. Each conversation needed a richer element, too, and that’s when the Lady Bulldogs focused on taking action.

Georgia wanted to have influence beyond words. Beyond a social media post. Beyond a shared story. While those carry significance, the Lady Bulldogs needed to work outside of their own huddle.

“It's time to show up as a citizen, an advocate and a role model, an ally and as a daughter,” Taylor said. “The words ‘show up’ really epitomize not only what we want to do on the basketball court, but in the city of Athens, our communities and in our home state. Hopefully, that will have a lasting impact for years to come.”

Seven days prior to Election Day on Nov. 3, Stegeman Coliseum began hosting early voting on Oct. 27 for those registered to vote within Athens-Clarke County. The initiative runs through Oct. 29, and voting occurs inside the bowels of the arena from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The on-campus voting site follows the Lady Bulldogs’ work of a voting-based push that began once classes resumed in August.

There were plenty of different methods for Georgia athletics’ programs to raise awareness for social injustices and take action within the community. The Lady Bulldogs saw a need within voting, because the generation of college-aged voters is one of the most underrepresented groups at the polls.

Georgia set its goal of getting 100% of student-athletes registered to vote. The Lady Bulldogs were at the epicenter of those efforts as Gabby Connally, Maya Caldwell and Mikayla Coombs formed a committee. They worked with “When We All Vote,” a non-partisan, nonprofit organization founded by Michelle Obama to amplify voter registration. The organization gave the players a training session on how to get others registered to vote. In addition, the team partnered with “The Georgia Way” and wrote two of the 10 informational blogs focused on voter education.

Ahead of early voting, all of the behind-the-scenes work came to light. Georgia met its goal and got a slew of student-athletes prepared to vote ahead of Election Day. On Oct. 24, the Lady Bulldogs gathered in downtown Athens to assist the county government at the polls. They wore a t-shirt with a team-designed “Show Up & Vote” logo, featuring the team’s 2020-21 mantra, with a QR code for voters to receive more information on voting.

At that moment, they felt their influence beyond the basketball court. Their ultimate victory came in raising awareness for their peers.

“I feel like it definitely starts with us,” Coombs said in September. “We have a platform that not a lot of people have. It’s on us to take initiative and get the word out. That’s our call to action.”

The Lady Bulldogs can celebrate the on-campus voting site and the significance it holds within Athens-Clarke County, but it nearly didn’t happen. While the student-athletes allowed their sport to take a back seat toward voting and awareness toward human rights, the university administration issued a statement on Sept. 16 in a different direction.

“The university determined early this summer that there would be no on-campus voting site at the Tate Center this fall,” the statement, which later referenced football and tailgating, read. “Students will still be able to vote at other locations, including one in downtown Athens, to which the University will provide a shuttle service for student voters.”

The university received immediate backlash. Some wondered why athletic events could resume at Sanford Stadium, but an on-campus venue couldn’t be opened for voting. The Tate Center is a five-story building with a large ballroom area which could’ve allowed space for socially-distant voting. Nonetheless, on-campus voting didn’t seem in the university’s plans — at least when the statement came to public light.

“COVID-19 must never be used as an excuse to limit voting access, including on college campuses,” said Stacey Abrams, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate in 2018, to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.

The following morning, the university came to a conclusion on Sept. 17. The home to Georgia’s basketball, volleyball and gymnastics programs became more important. An arena turned into a voting center.

The Lady Bulldogs have devoted much of their time to voting efforts and working with student-athletes to ensure those opportunities. But they’re not done yet. They see more that needs to be done within their communities. Each time there’s a need, Taylor and her players have jumped at it.

Georgia received a request from the Boys & Girls Club of Athens, where Joni Taylor’s husband, Darius Taylor, is on the program’s Board of Directors. Elementary school students around Athens are struggling to receive WiFi access, and some have either had to connect to hotspots or work at a local McDonald’s or Wendy’s to finish their schoolwork. A resolution to the issue has been in the works for a while, mainly with the Dawgs for Pups initiative launched by the football program. The Boys & Girls Club offered a helping hand in it, too, by allowing 50 students in each of its two Athens facilities. In order to re-open during the pandemic, however, water fountains had to be shut off.

In a span of 48 hours, the Lady Bulldogs had an answer for hydration.

“We got over 150 water bottles to them, so they can have their water bottle while learning,” Joni Taylor said. “It’s something tangible. We can see it happening. It made the girls feel really good.”

Georgia has teamed up with the Athens-Clarke County School District, too. The students can receive meals on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. One of those meals is a sack-type lunch with cold cuts. The Lady Bulldogs wanted to help with snacks to go along with those meals that might be missing a fun element. The players donated their per diem to collect the snacks in bulk for the young students to enjoy.

There have been plenty of strides away from basketball for Georgia. Taylor issues a new challenge: “How else can we create change?” There are more tangible steps in the works, too, including a video of players doing agility drills to present to the children for virtual physical education.

“It’s wonderful to see the work that is being done to make a positive impact in the lives of youth in the Athens community and beyond,” Georgia senior deputy athletic director Josh Brooks said. “We hope their actions present a challenge to others in the community to lend a helping hand as well.”

The recent months have been busy for the Lady Bulldogs, even if basketball is excluded. Their work in the community has been commendable, and their polling efforts have led that.

Two events around the athletic facilities feature the women’s basketball program’s footprint — Stegeman Coliseum as an early voting venue and the NCAA’s mandated off day on Nov. 3.

Those conversations beyond basketball had the biggest influence.

“The change we want to see is huge, but it’s the little things that get us there,” Caldwell said.