Detroit votes: How OL Oday Aboushi sparked Detroit Lions’ voting initiative

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
| Detroit Free Press

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Oday Aboushi was never much into politics, so in some ways, he is an unlikely catalyst for the Detroit Lions’ voting initiative.

But as dozens of players, coaches and staff members shared deeply personal stories about systemic racism and brainstormed how they could affect change after the death of George Floyd this spring, Aboushi’s modern day “rock the vote” message connected with all corners of the locker room.

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A backup offense lineman who has started three games since the start of the 2018 season, Aboushi implored his teammates to think of change on the local level first. His sister, Tahanie, a civil rights attorney in New York, is running for Manhattan district attorney in 2021, and Aboushi explained how elections like hers have the most direct impact on communities and the people who police them.

His message hit home with many who wondered why Derek Chauvin, one of four Minneapolis police officers charged in Floyd’s death, remained on the force despite reportedly accumulating at least 17 complaints during his 19 years with the department. Just one of those complaints resulted in discipline.

For some on the Zoom calls, learning that they have a say in electing prosecutors and other local officials who shape the policies of their communities was news itself.

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“Oday brought up the point that kind of stuck with me was, yeah, we want to get rid of systemic oppression, racial inequality and everything,” wide receiver Jamal Agnew said. “Protesting, we want to do all that. But the only way to actually see change is to vote those people in office that feel the same way (as you do). That kind of opened my eyes and kind of sparked it for me just knowing I had never voted or even registered to vote since I turned 18.”

The Lions, who host the Indianapolis Colts (4-2) on Sunday in a bid to get above .500 for the first time this season, have spent the past four months actively engaged in voter registration and education projects.

Matthew Stafford, Trey Flowers and Duron Harmon took part in a virtual town hall for voter education hosted by the Lions’ Inspire Change initiative, in conjunction with the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equity (RISE), in July. Lions coach Matt Patricia and others shared recorded messages encouraging people to vote in both local and national elections during the Zoom.

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Harmon, Flowers, Christian Jones and Jalen Reeves-Maybin held another online educational forum to discuss the prosecutor races in Oakland and Wayne counties around the same time.

Flowers, who has said having relatives take part in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in the 1960s inspired him to register to vote as an 18-year-old, joined another virtual town hall with the Players Coalition last week to discuss ways voters can cast their ballot.

And the Lions, who will host receiving boards at Ford Field after Tuesday’s election — the Detroit Pistons also will host receiving boards at Little Caesars Arena — teamed with RISE to host an in-house registration drive last month in which about 15 players, including Agnew, signed up to vote.

“I think it’s great for us as coaches and guys that are trying to always influence and help younger men in the game of football to give them that alley, give them those resources, help educate on that and how important that it is to have those rights that we can go out and vote,” Patricia said. “And, really, honestly for me, the best part is just seeing I would say some of the excitement from the guys that maybe have voted for the first time. I think that’s the cool part, and I think that you see guys with that sort of excitement. You know that that’s going to carry forward. So that’s probably the coolest part of it.”

Agnew said he never gave much thought to registering to vote while growing up in southeast San Diego. Politics were rarely a topic of discussion at the dinner table, so he never realized that his power went beyond voting for president, governor and other top officials.

When he sent his absentee ballot in last month, he felt “empowered” doing so.

“They say every vote matters and you never know, my vote might be the tipping point,” Agnew said. “It’s just reassuring to me just knowing I voted this year, and I’m trying to encourage everybody to register and vote. Obviously, time is ticking, election in a couple (days) now, but I definitely just feel empowered. Just using my vote, just taking advantage of that opportunity.”

As big a proponent as he was about voting in local elections, Aboushi said he did not fully grasp the power voters had until his sister decided to run for office.

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In fact, Aboushi never even registered until earlier this year, after the Lions held two private informational Zoom calls on the topic, one for players and another for employees.

He registered in New York in September, and like Agnew, cast his ballot absentee.

“I’ve never played scratch-offs too much, but you’re kind of almost invested, like the lottery almost,” Aboushi said. “Like you buy the ticket and you hope whatever (you scratch off wins). For me, that first time was definitely exciting and I felt like I had a say. I felt very involved for the first time in our government, outside of Twitter and Instagram and bringing awareness, actually having a say and putting your opinion in and voting. I felt like I was, for me, personally, I felt American. I felt like it was a step in the right direction of where we all need to be as citizens as far as having a say in our local government and actually local officials.”

Because of the events of recent months, from Floyd’s death to the demonstrations that followed and the coronavirus pandemic that’s turned not just the NFL but life in general on its head, Aboushi said more players than ever feel a sense of responsibility to vote.

“I’ve seen a lot of guys in the past couple (weeks) getting their stuff together, getting their ballots together, going out and voting, whether it’s in person, whether it’s mail-in,” he said. “The conversation’s been had along.”

And as charged as this election has been, both Aboushi and Agnew said conversations have remained civil in the Lions locker room with everyone united in “wanting better for us as athletes, as citizens.”

“I feel like once people do vote and people see their vote play out and people start to really see their actions being put in play, it’s going to be almost addicting to where they can’t wait to vote again and they can’t wait to have a say,” Aboushi said. “And not just the presidential election, but maybe your next local election, maybe it’s you voting for anything in general, whether it’s maybe something at work or your government, whatever it is. Once you feel like your voice has been heard, I know that can be really gratifying for a lot of people to go out and continue to push them to use their voices.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

Free Press Voter Guide

Welcome to the Detroit Free Press 2020 Voter Guide. The Free Press asked candidates in most of the contested races in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne Counties questions about a host of issues. Enter your address to see what the candidates on your ballot had to say, from U.S. Senate to your local school board. You will only see an accurate ballot if you enter your full address. Your information will not be shared with anyone.

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