With all that space in the Spectrum Center and no big events to bring in the crowds, the Charlotte Hornets announced in July that the arena will be opened as an early voting site during the last two weeks of October. But the organization isn’t stopping there. On Tuesday, the Hornets will host Swarm the Polls, a virtual event featuring head coach James Borrego and other leaders from the Charlotte sports and entertainment world.
Queen City Nerve spoke with two leaders within the Hornets organization who will be involved in Tuesday’s event: Fred Whitfield, president, vice chairman, and minority owner of the Charlotte Hornets; and Betsy Mack, senior director of corporate social responsibility with the Hornets and executive director of the Charlotte Hornets’ Swarm to Serve foundation.
Speaking over the phone Monday, the two discussed the upcoming event, as well as some of the social questions the Hornets organization and the local community have faced in 2020.
Queen City Nerve: How did the decision come about to use the Spectrum Center for early voting and for the Hornets to actively participate in educating the public about the voting process?
Fred Whitfield: We’re an organization that is clearly led by our owner Michael Jordan, and have been heavily involved in the community since he bought the team. As we approach the upcoming November election, one of the things he’s been focused on personally with his partnership with Jordan brands is the voters’ space, and we as an organization in our respective community in Charlotte, we reached out to the city to see if they would be in accord with us in going to the Board of Elections and seeing if the Spectrum Center could be a safe environment that allowed social distance for the amount of people to feel comfortable coming inside to vote, and whether they would support our efforts to have the Spectrum Center become a polling site.
The polling site was just part of our Swarm the Polls initiative, which was really built around four things. One is to educate the public about the importance of voting. Two is to inform people how to vote. Three is to make sure people understand what they have to do to register to vote and drive voter registration. And four is to encourage people to exercise their right to vote and to hopefully make it easier and accessible for everyone to exercise their essential right.
Your press release mentioned a primary focus of the campaign is to ensure as many people as possible participate in the electoral process, including those in communities with the highest poverty rates. What do you plan on doing to assist them in voting?
Betsy Mack: As a committee, when our ownership and leadership team decided that this was going to be a key focus area, we actually had 25 volunteers within the Hornets sports and entertainment team — so we had different employees on different levels and different departments — all pitch in and join this committee to form our Swarm the Polls campaign and initiative.
Regarding helping the most vulnerable neighborhoods and communities, I would call our most vulnerable groups underrepresented groups, so as our committees go deeper into these areas, we started looking at these neighborhoods and reaching out to neighborhood associations to ask how the Hornets could potentially assist and identify the challenges they are facing. We are helping to work with key partners and to be a catalyst to make those connections and to see how we can make those challenges disappear or bring in different solutions.
We’re also going out into these neighborhoods and having conversations and bringing education out. We’re going out every Wednesday for the next four weeks — five weeks counting last week — showing individuals how to register to vote, showing them the website, and making sure we’re providing them with the necessary information.
Would I be correct in saying that a lot of these initiatives came about when the players sat out games recently in response to police violence and at one point, it was thought the season might shut down?
Whitfield: Actually, that’s not correct. We actually started this initiative probably six weeks ago. We initially had a conversation with the city manager, and once we learned the city was completely supportive, at that point, we contacted the board of elections probably five weeks ago to start the process of formally being approved as an early polling site, and Betsy and her team have been working on this initiative for at least two months.
As the NBA Labor Relations Committee chairman, Michael Jordan got involved with Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook in the hope of understanding what they were trying to achieve by sitting out. He then urged the other owners to allow the players to express their frustrations and concerns before offering solutions. Was this something you and Michael discussed before he spoke with the players, and what did he tell you about it?
Whitfield: Michael does play a really critical, unique role as being the only former player that is the majority owner of an NBA team. I think Commissioner Adam Silver wisely asked Michael to serve as chairperson of the Labor Relations Committee because as a former player he could clearly understand a player’s thoughts and concerns of the negotiating process of the CBA, [collective bargaining agreement] and also as an owner, he could be a voice for the other 29 owners, and have the players, who all respect and look up to him, understand the owners’ perspective of things.
Part of his role was being the conduit and connector between players and owners, and his ability to hear the deep concerns of players and what they felt strongly needed to be addressed. He could hear the players’ perspective and be a listening ear to them, and he could also share those thoughts with his other 29 partners and be a listening ear as well for them, as well as being able to share dialogue between the owners and the players in a unique way that probably not another owner or person could do so having worn the hat of both.
Based on the stoppage, your organization formed a social justice committee to combat voter suppression and police brutality. How has the police brutality aspect affected the Charlotte Hornets’ involvement?
Whitfield: We got involved in the social justice space, and what our strategy has been really sort of mirrors the NBA perspective, but I would say after the death of George Floyd, I think we realized we could be a voice and we could use our brand and our assets within our organization, our players, our coaches, and our executive staff to really work hard in the social justice space and created a strategy that Betsy and her team put together that we’re all executing, and the voting is just one piece of that.
Mack: Even though our social justice platform as a whole is newly created, we’ve been doing work in this area since I started [in October 2016]. This has been intentional for some of our events, but we haven’t been as purposeful as putting it at the forefront which is something now we’re doing.
Our social justice platform we have created has four overall focus areas. Voting is the first area that we are focused in. The next three are racial equity, justice reform, and economic mobility. Voting is the current focus with the election coming up, but after the national election, voting isn’t going to fall off. We are going to still continue focusing on voting, voter rights, and the importance of local elections just as much as our national election because decisions at the local level are just as important if not more important at times than our national elections, since these are the individuals that feed into our national election.
With our racial equity, economic mobility, and justice reform areas, we have been building those out substantially as well. The CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] Foundation team as a whole has been very involved in the process and we have presented our proposals to the leadership team and to the NBA, and we’re going to do quite a bit in these spaces. We’re going to be a lot more intentional in calling out the social justice platform, so we’re really trying to build in those areas as well.
Head coach James Borrego is hosting a virtual town hall on Tuesday about the importance of voting and promoting voter registration that will be open to the public. Other current and former Charlotte sports personalities will attend and share their thoughts and stories about voting. I noticed the list includes Muggsy Bogues, Rex Chapman, Devonte Graham, and Steve Smith. Are there any possible surprises we can expect?
Mack: We’re really excited to hear from those individuals. We also have Anthony Hamilton joining us and James Jordan will be joining us as well. We’re really excited about having each of these individuals sharing their unique perspectives and why voting is so important not only in general but particularly this year, and how your vote is really your voice and we need everyone to come together to vote. We’re not going to be saying who to vote for, we’re not taking a side or a stance, we just want everyone to get out to the polls and vote, which is why our campaign is Swarm the Polls. We want to see as many people as possible voting, whether it’s absentee or it’s on Election Day, and just helping to navigate through some of the difficult questions and information. There is so much information out there. There are so many different details and logistics on how to register and where to vote and early voting.
We want to have that conversation in an entertaining but inspirational way, so that’s what we’re really excited about for this event. We think the revolving door of individuals coming in will keep it fresh and exciting. We have a great turnout so far, I just looked at our registration list and it looks like we got a great audience so far but we are hoping to see that continue to grow and have the best conversation that we can.
When Michael Jordan played, he didn’t like to get involved in politics. Was he at all concerned there are fans of the team that might view this as a political statement?
Whitfield: I don’t think he did at all. We think it’s important that everyone exercises their right to vote. We are not making any kind of political statement or suggestion as to who anyone should vote for. Once we get past this election, we will continue to be focused on voting because the voting for county and elected officials and state elected officials, moving on into time, all of the elections are critical and everyone’s voice should be heard. We’re certainly not making a political statement other than encouraging everyone to exercise their right to vote, and to vote for the candidate they think best represents their thoughts.
Mack: Something that is really kind of neat with our slogan and our logo with it is using our color and it’s purple. So we’re really not picking a side, red or blue, but we’re kind of combining together and really promoting either side, because if you combine them together, it’s purple.
Is there any fear some season ticket holders or owners of corporate suites might view it as a political statement?
Whitfield: I don’t think so. We have gotten really positive feedback from our season ticket holders, our sponsors, and the community at large. We’re really encouraging people to exercise their right to vote. I think people view it as our organization doing our part to try to create a safe environment so people can come out and vote at the Spectrum Center. That we’re encouraging everyone to vote and to exercise that essential right. All the feedback that we have gotten has been very positive.