Recently on one of the best shows on television – HBO’s “Real Sports” – anchor Bryant Gumbel devoted his closing monologue to questioning why there are not more athletes participating in politics. Gumbel certainly has a point. Look around the political landscape, and you will notice the vast majority of politically active celebrities are movie and television stars – not quarterbacks and pitchers. If the 2006 midterms are any indication, though, we should see more athletes dipping their toes into the political waters in the future.
Last Tuesday night, former NFL quarterback Heath Schuler won his bid for a House seat in North Carolina. After his career in football ended, Schuler became a born-again Christian, and the Republican Party tried recruiting him to run for Congress a few years back. This election cycle, the Democrats succeeded in lobbying Schuler to become a member of their congressional huddle – despite strong opposition from Redskins fans still oozing with hatred for Schuler because of his failed run as their quarterback.
In Pennsylvania, retired Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and ABC college football analyst Lynn Swann got crushed when he challenged Gov. Ed Rendell in that state’s gubernatorial race. It was thought that Swann’s stature as a Steelers legend would elevate him to the governor’s mansion, just as former Oklahoma Sooner standout J.C. Watts’s prominence earned him a seat in Congress. Unfortunately for Republicans, even Swann could not run away from the blue curtain that descended upon America last week.
Of course, politics is not limited just to athletes retired from the world of sports. During the World Series telecast on FOX, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan and former St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner participated in a commercial that spoke out against the Missouri stem cell proposal. Clearly, their intentions were to use their influence as beloved athletes to sway voters toward the pro-life position on the issue and to counter the Hollywood influence infused by my childhood hero Michael J. Fox. Suppan and Warner may have lost their battle in the end, but the final vote tabulations on the ballot proposal were much closer than the pre-election polls indicated.
Here in Michigan, University basketball coach Tommy Amaker and Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo unsuccessfully lobbied against the passage of Proposal 2. I wonder if the opposition would have been more successful if it aired commercials with Detroit icons such as Joe Dumars and Barry Sanders.
Recruiting athletes to run for political office makes sense because their status overcomes most of the barriers candidates face as they enter the political world. First, name recognition – a quality lesser known candidates devote untold resources to developing – is already established. Second, seed money should not be an issue given the enormous incomes of professional athletes and their access to wealthy donors. Third, professional athletes tend to give back to their communities through charitable causes, translating into high favorability ratings among constituents. Finally, the iconic status of professional athletes makes their forays into the political world instantaneously newsworthy – so gathering the media’s attention is not an issue.
In the past, some retired professional athletes have had very successful political careers. Former Buffalo Bills quarterback and American Football League Association President Jack Kemp was the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 1996. Kemp also played a key role – while a member of Congress from New York – in drafting and passing the Reagan tax reforms in the 1980s.
Professional athletes are not loyally entrenched in one political party or one political philosophy, and I think Americans find athletes more credible as a result. When Suppan and Warner spoke out against the stem-cell research proposal in Missouri, it was the result of their deeply held personal beliefs on the issue – not peer pressure in the athletic community. Conversely, when Hollywood stars take up their pet causes, the public views it as an exercise in image-boosting or one-upmanship – not heartfelt loyalty to the cause.
Hollywood celebrities, by and large, have the same aforementioned advantages, but there is a salient difference between them and professional athletes – Hollywood is liberal. I cannot recall an “A-list” actor in my lifetime – other than Mel Gibson – who championed a conservative cause. George Clooney, Barbara Streisand, Julia Roberts and Jon Stewart are all Hollywood icons who give large sums of money to liberal causes but have little influence outside the coasts.
It remains to be seen if the athletic community overtakes the Hollywood community in political activity, but I can see an interesting future presidential race – George Clooney vs. Tom Brady, anybody?
John Stiglich II can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.