The Wisconsin volleyball team gathered on the bleachers of the fieldhouse as head coach Kelly Sheffield delivered some disappointing news. Their 2020 fall volleyball season was to be postponed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
One player jokingly spoke up, saying, "well, now what?"
Sure enough, Sheffield had an answer to that question. He proposed an idea to his players: The entire team would volunteer to work at the polls for the 2020 election.
"It was one of those moments where you tell the team something, and no matter what you say, everyone is going to be excited and gung ho about it, or it was going to be one of those moments that no matter what you say it is going to be the worst idea ever because they were just told that their season was going to be postponed," Sheffield said. "Fortunately for the moment, and for my own thinking decently of myself, there was excitement in that moment."
Players on @BadgerVB team have decided to sign up to work the polls on Election Day. We’d love to see student-athletes all across the country, whose seasons have been postponed, join us in supporting their communities. #vote— Kelly Sheffield (@KellyPSheffield) August 26, 2020
"We were all on board," All American middle blocker Dana Rettke said. "We knew we wanted to make it a bigger thing. Within the Wisconsin athletic department and beyond if possible."
Younger people volunteering to work at the polls is even more impactful during the COVID-19 pandemic. The risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Nearly 60 percent of poll workers in the 2016 election were older than 60, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
Rettke said Sheffield's idea was in keeping with how he mentors players.
"He really did push us to go outside our boundaries a little bit, do something we have never done," she said. "None of us have worked the polls before. He was just super supportive of it and excited for us to get out there."
And not only are they signed up to work the polls, but Sheffield said every single player on the Wisconsin volleyball team is registered to vote. Rettke said she and her teammates are looked to as leaders in their community and outside of athletics. Historically, because younger people might be less likely to vote, the Badgers hope to set an example in their community. Most of the team has never voted before, and Sheffield said there has been a lot of enthusiasm in the process for the first-time voters.
One thing Sheffield made a point to mention was that he didn't want his team's effort to be partisan.
"I don't care who our players vote for," Sheffield said. "Just get out there and have a voice. I feel like we're at a time right now where people think that they don't have a say in things. It's a small but important way that our democracy moves forward and gives us a little bit of say. So let's get out there and exercise the franchise a little bit."
Another goal for Sheffield and the Wisconsin volleyball players is to give back to a community that gives so much to them. Sheffield noted that they play in front of 7,000 fans at home every single night during a normal season. They're a pretty big deal in Madison.
"We understand that being a part of college athletics, so much is given to us," Sheffield said. "We are really, really fortunate. It gives us the opportunity to give back. To help people, to be service-minded, community-minded. And certainly in these times of coronavirus, you can get stuck in the mud a little bit. Giving a little of perspective about other people can be really good for mental health right now as well."
"Wisconsin volleyball is pretty prominent in our community, which makes our experience so awesome, so we wanted to be able to give back to those that give so much to us," Rettke said.
Rettke, the 2019 Big Ten Player of the Year, is a member of the Wisconsin student-athlete advisory committee (SAAC). All student-athletes will have the first Tuesday of November off (no practice, no games) every year thanks to an initiative sponsored by the SAAC and adopted by the NCAA.
Sheffield (who joked that he used to get excited when he saw someone he knew in the grocery store as a kid) hopes that people might be happy to see some of their favorite athletes working the polls when they go out to vote. Although it might be hard to recognize them, a 6-foot-8 player or two might give it away.
More than anything, Sheffield and his players wanted this movement to be contagious. Madison has a waiting list for people that want to work the polls, but Sheffield said it breaks his heart to hear stories of people waiting hours to vote in other parts of the country. Sheffield and the Badgers want to do their part to help out in the best way they know how, and hope others might hop on and do the same.