Mason wants its student-athletes to get out the vote

Natalya Moody, who plays defense for George Mason University’s women’s lacrosse team, said she is an “avid” voter.

It is a sensibility instilled in her by her mother, Natasha Dartigue, who is a deputy district public defender for Baltimore City.

“She is a firm believer I should be active in every election, whether on the state level or for presidential elections,” said Moody, a senior mechanical engineering major. “It is incredibly important to be active in your community.”

But Moody also understands why student-athletes do not always exercise that right. That is why she said she was excited to hear that Mason Athletics is giving all its student-athletes Election Day (Nov. 3) off—that is, free them of obligations related to their sport.

“We juggle practice. We juggle study hall. We juggle homework. Sometimes we even struggle to find time to eat,” Moody said of student-athletes. “So it does become difficult to do something as important as voting when it’s like, ‘What assignment do I have due tonight? What time was I supposed to do extra work with my teammates? What time was I supposed to go to the training room for rehab after practice?’ ”

Mason joined several other institutions that have given student-athletes Election Day off, including Georgia Tech and all the Ivy League schools. But it is how Mason came to its decision that is most fascinating.

It started within the Webex meetings men’s basketball coach Dave Paulsen has had with his players every Thursday since Mason closed its campuses in March because of COVID-19. The calls were to keep in contact and discuss what the players were learning about the pandemic, Paulsen said.

One of those calls turned into a lesson, led by assistant coach Duane Simpkins, on the history of systematic racism in the United States. That led to a discussion about voting—who did or didn’t, and why it is important.

That led to discussions among Paulsen, Athletic Director Brad Edwards and a group of supervisors who represented Mason’s intercollegiate sports. Edwards said the vote was unanimous to give student-athletes Election Day off.

It was the right thing to do as a civic duty and as a way to give Mason’s student-athletes a voice, Edwards said. And women’s basketball Coach Nyla Milleson said, “What the day means in the bigger scheme of things is far more important than shifting a day during the week.”

The Atlantic 10 conference recently postponed its fall sports season because of the coronavirus pandemic, freeing up time for student-athletes. But that doesn’t change the message Mason Athletics is sending.

“As coaches, we are educators and teachers,” Paulsen said. “What we do is not necessarily academic, but it’s unequivocally educational. We’re trying to help educate, in my case young men, to be great citizens Don’t take this right to vote for granted. Use it.”

Tyler Benson, a sprinter on Mason’s men’s track and field team, said he votes every year and was “really pleased” Mason gave student-athletes Election Day off.

“It shows Mason is giving us an opportunity to go out and have a voice,” said Benson, a senior cyber security engineering major. “For them to reach out and say, ‘We’re going to give you guys a day off to make a change and raise your voices.’ It’s really powerful.”