As of Tuesday, it’s “game on” for members of the UO men’s and women’s basketball staffs.
Technically, Mike Mennenga is an assistant coach for the Oregon men’s team, and Courtney Walden is the strength coach for the women’s team, along with UO softball. But they’ll be head coaches in one respect over the next three weeks, leading teams of Oregon student-athletes competing to see who can recruit the most friends and family to become registered voters for the November election.
Tuesday was National Voter Registration Day, and the UO athletic department celebrated by announcing that 100 percent of Oregon student-athletes who are eligible to vote have registered for the election.
The NCAA recently announced that election day, Nov. 3, would be an off day from practice and competition for student-athletes nationwide. Oregon athletics already had advised coaches that the Ducks would have that day off; though Oregon is a vote-by-mail state, the off day will ensure student-athletes have an opportunity to get ballots to drop boxes, and to participate in activism and leadership opportunities.
With all eligible UO student-athletes now registered to vote, Mennenga and Walden are moving on to the next steps of a campaign that Mennenga dubbed “Keep It 100” — ensuring 100 percent participation in November’s election, and holding a contest among student-athletes to encourage others to register to vote.
The “Keep It 100” campaign has partnered with OSPIRG, a student advocacy group on campus, to conduct a competition running through Oct. 13 to see which UO athletics teams can recruit the most registered voters over the next three weeks. Mennenga and Walden divided up Oregon’s programs between them and are “coaching” the two teams through the competition.
The genesis for “Keep It 100” stemmed from Coaches 4 Change, a national organization founded in the wake of the death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in Minnesota. Mennenga and Walden had both participated with Coaches 4 Change independent of each other, and they decided to bring that national conversation home to Eugene.
“We really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into,” Mennenga said. “We’re coaches; we’re not necessarily activists. But it was a great opportunity to engage and empower our athletes.”
Mennenga and Walden first worked with UO administrators and coaches to encourage voter registration among UO student-athletes. Walden said the programs she works with — softball and women’s basketball — had engaged in conversations about social justice issues in the wake of Floyd’s killing, and voting was a natural outlet for their desire to take action.
“We were like, ‘What books can we read,’ all that kind of stuff,” Walden said. “But then we decided, we have to do something. What can we do?”
Support for “Keep It 100” came from the top, with UO director of athletics Rob Mullens repeatedly encouraging head coaches and student-athletes in all sports to embrace the voter registration drive in recent weeks. The message was received whole-heartedly.
Coordinator of student-athlete development Jess Harlee and accountant Angie Henbest in the athletics business office helped with educational material for UO coaches and student-athletes.
“The success of ‘Keep It 100’ is a prime example of why Oregon wins championships,” Mennenga said. “Ducks are connected not just on game day but everyday. This goal does not happen and isn’t feasible without the support of our coaches, the buy-in of our athletes, the continued efforts of BEOREGON, and the leadership of our administration. Empowering hundreds of student athletes to become lifetime voters is amazing. This generation, our student athletes are truly tomorrow’s leaders.”
“I’m really grateful for the support,” Walden added, “because it’s pretty clear some people at other schools don’t feel it the same way.”
Starting Tuesday, individual websites went live for each UO athletics program. They will serve as portals for those teams to encourage others to register to vote, and help keep score in the competition between the rosters being “coached” by Mennenga and Walden.
“These student-athletes can be leaders,” Walden said. “Athletes can start a movement, and have a huge impact on the student body overall.”