Sports, politics beginning to mix

Athletes like Peyton Manning (top) and coaches such as Byron Scott (middle) have given to political campaigns in the past. (Photo illustration by Jamey Bramlett/The Times)
Who’s giving to politicians?
Several athletes, a coach and an owner with Louisiana ties have taken part in presidential campaigns over the last five years through their donations.
Name Contribution Year Campaign
Tom Benson, Saints owner $2,000 2003-04 Bush-Cheney
Karl Malone, L.A. Lakers $2,000 2003 Bush-Cheney
Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts $2,000 2004 Bush-Cheney
Byron Scott, N.O. Hornets coach $1,000 1999 Bill Bradley — Presidential campaign
Willis Reed, N.O. Hornets executive $1,000 1999 Bill Bradley — Presidential campaign
Source: Federal Elections Commission

With the national election less than a week away, Republican and Democratic candidates are picking up a variety of endorsements ranging from newspapers, special interest groups and entertainers.

Yet, it’s rare for a professional athlete, coach or owner to show public support for a political candidate. Some, like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, are even chastised for not being more vocal with political causes.

So why is it athletes are not more politically inclined when elections roll around?

“The most obvious reason by far is that movie stars and musicians are part of a much broader political reality, which is Hollywood politics,” said political analyst Elliott Stonecipher. “Hollywood is very much a part of liberal and Democrat party politics in America and that’s what gets the actors and actresses.

“Sports in America are not a part of any such party, political operation or any other American political label. That’s just a fundamental difference. I’m not sure if it’s about sports, as much as it is the uniqueness of Hollywood.”

Another factor is time. Offseasons are virtually nonexistent for a professional athlete — seasons drag on for months followed by months of conditioning and training.

Actors and entertainers sometimes have weeks or months between projects, providing ample time for them to get active in a cause.

“There are socialization studies that show that starting at an early age you learn some of your level of interest in politics from family,” said Rodney Grunes, chair of the history and political science department at Centenary.

“But in later years, you learn it from people you’re associating with and if you’re not associating with people who are talking about what’s going on in the world and only talking about sports, then you’re not going to be out there.”

Though an athlete, coach or owner may not rally support for a candidate, it doesn’t mean they are politically naive. They do find other ways, mostly monetary, to contribute to campaigns.

A recent USA Today analysis of 2003-04 donations showed team owners and commissioners are not apathetic to political causes.

The newspaper’s analysis showed NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and NASCAR team owners contributed $14.6 million to political candidates, parties and other political advocacy groups.

All but 25 of the 153 owners and commissioners made one or more donations and about 83 percent of the donations went to Republican or conservative candidates or groups. Saints owner Tom Benson has given money to the Bush-Cheney campaign, but he also contributed to Democratic candidates as well. In 2002, Benson gave $1,000 to Mary Landrieu’s campaign.

Shreveport PGA star David Toms contributed $2,000 to the Jim McCrery for Congress Committee. New Orleans native Peyton Manning contributed $2,000 to the Bush-Cheney ticket and former Louisiana Tech and longtime Utah Jazz star Karl Malone has given $10,000 to Republican groups the last two years.

Athletes are not completely foreign to the political world. While many don’t voice their support during their playing careers, some join their favorite cause after their careers.

“It really is the case that at a certain point, people are egocentric enough to believe that they can be just about anything,” Stonecipher said. “A person that has achieved a certain status in terms of being a star within any profession or discipline may easily cross over into politics.

“It’s really about ego. You reach a certain point and you figure you can do whatever you want to do. I see it in these folks all the time.”

Former U.S. Senator and 2000 Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley was All-America in basketball at Princeton and starred with the New York Knicks. Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jack Kemp served as a U.S. representative from New York for 19 years before joining Bob Dole on the 1996 Republican ticket for the White House.

Former Seattle receiver Steve Largent and Oklahoma quarterback J.C. Watts served in the House. Former Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne serves in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Former major league pitcher Jim Bunning represents Kentucky in the U.S. Senate. Jim Ryun, who won Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year” for setting the world record in the mile, serves in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Charles Barkley has flirted with the idea of running for office in Alabama and Malone has talked about running for governor of Utah.

Athletes have even risen to the highest office in the country — President Dwight Eisenhower played football at the U.S. Military Academy and President Gerald Ford played the sport at Michigan.

“The skills that are required to succeed in politics are similar to those required to succeed in athletics,” said Louisiana Tech Athletic Director Jim Oakes, who served as chief of staff for U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston.

“Successful athletes are driven people. Former athletes or coaches, like Osborne, Largent or Watts, those are people that are extremely driven. They wanted to make an impact in a field outside of athletics.”

October 27, 2004