Oregon assistant men’s basketball Coach Mike Mennenga knows hard work can pay off. During his tenure, Oregon has won three regular season Pac-12 Championships and two Pac-12 Tournament Championships.
In June, amid protests against police brutality and racism, he felt like he needed to do something then he got a call from a friend. A fellow basketball coach at Siena College in upstate New York was reaching out to dozens of basketball coaches to see how they could come together and use their platform to bring about change.
Mennenga was passionate about the issue and he knew some hard work was ahead as he and other coaches began brainstorming. Mennenga said they landed on one very big question: “How can we affect not only students and athletes on our campus, but how can we work together to kind of take advantage of strength in numbers. And from that, we just kind of thought, you gotta dominate your space, you gotta go back to your campus and find ways to engage with your athletes and start there.”
The result: Coaches 4 Change, a coalition with a goal to engage, educate, empower, and evolve young voters in the areas of social injustice, systemic racism, and the power of voting.
When the organization held a national Zoom meeting to include more people in the college basketball community, Mennenga saw a familiar face on the screen- Courtney Walden, the strength and conditioning coach for the Ducks’ women’s basketball and softball teams. Walden said “Mike is bold and energetic and he was like, if you’re wanting and willing to do this, I’m ready- I’m ready to go.”
Once they got together, Mennenga and Walden started the “Keep it 100” campaign. Mennenga said it was based on three principles: “100% voter registration, 100% voter education and participation and number three was keeping it 100 in your lifetime stand against racism and hate.”
The campaign launched as a competition- they are coaches after all. They wanted U-O’s athletic teams to race to see who could have the highest percentage of registered voters.
First, they had to get buy in from the athletic department and head coaches, but they had one specific target audience. Mennenga said “the most important piece is athlete buy-in. At the end of the day Courtney and I went into this thinking we just didn’t want our athletes filling out a form. We really, really wanted them to know that this was a lifetime commitment moving forward.”
Trying to get 400 U of O student-athletes, from 40 different states registered posed some challenges. “Every state has different rules, guidelines as to how do you request your ballot, receive your ballot, and finally- how do you vote,” said Mennenga.
But within a few short weeks, the leaderboard showed a tie: 100% of all student-athletes who are eligible to vote had been registered.
Mennenga said the initiative surpassed his expectations and has made him optimistic about the future. “I got two teenage daughters, obviously I’m mentor to a bunch of talented young men, many of them are men of color and I believe that’s the generation that’s gonna get this right,” said Mennenga.
Walden agrees and says she’s hopeful the education they’ve been engaging in with student athletes will stick with them. She said “I hope that what we’re doing here with me and Mike and this whole Keep It 100 initiative of saying this is a lifetime commitment to stand against racism and hate that means you don’t just stand by passively- you have to be active in that. Being passive is not being anti-racist, you know. You have to be active on that.”
Part of the education they’ve been providing to student-athletes is around the down-ballot. That includes explaining to first-time voters that voting in local races has direct impact on local communities. Walden said “generations move on and it feels less important to them and I feel like it’s because they only think about that presidential election, and when they really start looking at some of issue when they are educated on it, like who’s making the call on that then it becomes important to them and education on that is huge- you can affect local policing, you can affect change right here in Oregon if you look at that down ballot.”
For Mennenga, the message has always been about empowering young men and women. “Not only your vote counts, but your voice matters. No matter who you vote for- right side, left side, whatever, I think we can all come together as humans and citizens that hate, racism- we’re done with that,” said Mennenga.
In the end, Mennenga says he sees similarities between student athletes showing dedication to their sports, and having a dedication to civic engagement. He noted that “the topic of voting covers a lot- because everybody has their own personal “why.” And I guess that’s ideally what we want to get to- is find your why- just like working with a player on the court- you need them to take ownership of their craft if you really want to break through to that championship-winning level. No different approach when it comes to voting. At the end of the day what I took from this from an Oregon perspective is this is why we win championships around here- it just really showed me why this is a championship place.”
Both Mennenga and Walden agree that Keep it 100 has put a big “W” on the board for the University of Oregon. Now they are keeping track of who actually casts their ballot, with a goal to keep that 100 as well.
Copyright 2020, KLCC