November 7, 2002

Marriage of Sports, Politics Emerges on Election Day

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Ever seen the press conference at which Jerry Rice announced he was leaving San Francisco to join the cross-town rival Raiders? The atmosphere was eerily similar to the emotions surrounding the announcement that Senator Jim Jeffords was leaving the Republican party for the Independents last year. How about this comparison? The stately John Stockton and the abrasive Karl Malone are, bear with me, reminiscent of the partnership between the dorky Al Gore and the “I don’t want to like him but for some reason I’m intrigued by him” personality of President Bill Clinton. Am I wrong? Can’t you just picture Gore and Clinton playing basketball — the former VP with his shorts jacked up to his naval and Billy Boy throwing elbows but dominating wildly.

This is to say: the universe of professional sports somehow echoes the world of politics time after time. Ok, so maybe only if you look closely enough. However, on Tuesday — Election Day 2002 — the two worlds converged like never before. This time at the forefront of the public eye. You just couldn’t deny it.

Four — count em, four — former athletes or sports-types were up for significant office two days ago. The group went three-for-four. Not a bad day at the plate or from the foul line. Even a better day for four jocks attempting to run the country.

The one loser: a football player. Of course. Former Seattle Seahawks’ wide receiver and Hall of Fame member Steve Largent was amazingly upset in his bid to become the governor of Oklahoma. What’s amazing is not that he lost but that most headlines about the race actually used the term “upset”. As a fellow sports editor commented, “I mean come on, the guy’s a football player…upset!?!?!?”

Largent had previously been a Congressman from the Sooner State and depended on such political gurus as former Dallas Cowboys head coach Barry Switzer for political advice during his recent campaign. Barry Switzer? Yeah, I said that.

On the winners’ list were 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Committee chairman Mitt Romney, runner Jim Ryun, and former Nebraska football head coach Tom Osborne.

Romney, the sketchy dude with the sketchy smile during the Closing Ceremonies, won the highly contested race for Massachusetts governor. Somehow, the ability to make backroom deals with the IOC and flash a scary “I love this world” face when interviewed, roughly translates into gubernatorial excellence.

Ryun, a long distance runner from the 50s who won a silver medal in the 1500m, may seem the most logical candidate. A combination of consistency, perseverance and a quality work ethic seems like a good thing for Washington. But who am I to judge? Ryun, running (no pun intended!, hahaha) in Kansas, was re-elected to the House.

Now Osborne was the biggest surprise. I mean, it’s that Osborne — the guy who used to scream at his subservient Cornhuskers year after year, along with the refs (figures of authority?). What does he do when someone disagrees with him? Can’t you just picture him in a sub-committee meeting grabbing a scrawny dissident’s tie screaming about sticking to the game plan. Do his peers call him Coach?

While Tuesday’s various sports-related elections may seem like a coincidence, it would more aptly be foreseen as the beginning of a trend. Such contemporary sports legends as John Elway, Steve Young, Tiger Woods, and even Karl Malone are already being tapped by party leaders and figureheads for future political career considerations.

The trend is also not unprecedented, as such political successes as J.C. Watts, Gerald Ford, Bill Bradley and Jack Kemp have proven athletes’ wherewithal in the political arena.

So why the fascination? Why the rockstar-actor interplay? Simple: athletes are, by nature, politicians. Their livelihoods count on win-lose outcomes. They are results oriented, used to traveling, adept at media relations, responsive to constituent (fan) needs, and egotistical.

Athletes also happen to be Republicans. Probably a point not even worth making, but what’s with that? With the exception of Bradley and Ventura, just about every other name mentioned in this discussion deserves an (R)following it.

Allow this antidote to explain the phenomenon: when Charles Barkley announced that if he were to run for office (which seems likely) he’d be a Republican, his grandmother gave him a call. “Charles, the GOP is the party of the rich!” she insisted. “I am rich,” answered Barkley.

Whatever your political convictions happen to be, realize that the growing intersect between sports and politics will likely effect you one day. Presidential ballots may increasingly resemble All-Star ballots while State of the Union addresses may take on a half-time locker room speech’s tone.

Good thing or bad? Who knows, but the prospects of Congress rising during a State of the Union address and chanting, “It’s all your fault!…” while pointing at the stunned speaker seems amusing enough to me.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Aside: While you wait, go out and see 8 Mile. It starts in theaters tomorrow. Eminem is the new Renaissance man. He and Mos Def need to do something together. It would be Oscar/Nobel-worthy stuff.

Archived article by Scott Jones