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They Can Play the Political Game Too

Elections: Even with losses by Kemp and Petty, former athletes do well in races.

November 06, 1996|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

These days, when a politician throws his hat into the ring, it's likely to land among football helmets and baseball caps. The trend of athletes-turned-politicians is on the rise and, judging by Tuesday's results, their success seems to translate well to the political arena.

At least seven prominent former athletes were involved with national and state elections. Four were victorious. Despite the loss at the top of the Republican ticket--led by vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp, a former pro football player--the seven Republicans did well. They did what they had been taught to do as athletes--compete and win.

The two losses came from Kemp and stock car racing great Richard Petty, who failed in his attempt to become North Carolina's secretary of state. Among the winners were former football stars Steve Largent and J.C. Watts, Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning and former miler Jim Ryun. Largent and Watts were reelected to Congressional seats from Oklahoma, Bunning was elected to his sixth term as a U.S. Representative from Kentucky and Ryun, the former world-record holder in the mile, won a Congressional seat from Kansas. Bill Kenney, the former Kansas City Chiefs' quarterback, was locked in a tight race for Missouri's lieutenant governor.

Athletes running for office are not new, but this political season was brimming with sports jargon, helped along by Kemp's insistence on framing the political campaign with athletic imagery.

Thus did Kemp refer to the latter stages of the race as "the fourth quarter" and willingly pose for photographs with a football cocked by his ear, his huge AFL-championship rings in full view.

Why not? After all, what is a campaign but a race? Aren't national political conventions often held in basketball arenas, such as this summer's Democratic Convention in Chicago?

If the language of politics and sports is a natural marriage, so too are athletes and politicians. Kemp, who went from the gridiron of pro football to the gridlock of Washington, says his athletic experience prepared him well for the game of politics.

"I learned a competitive attitude in football, and I still have it," he said. "I also learned to tolerate opposition. And I think it's very important when you are competing in the realm of ideas. I can argue tax policy with somebody without hating him or taking it personally. It's easy for me, because I come from a job where every Sunday, some of my best friends were trying to knock my head off."

Dr. Genevieve Rail, a professor of sports sociology at the University of Ottawa, said that from her perspective north of the border that it makes perfect sense that athletes can move from locker room to congressional hearing room.

"I don't find it very surprising that it would be easy for someone who competed at that high level to be comfortable with the values in politics," she said. "The fact that [athletes] don't have a political background doesn't carry much weight in eyes of voters in the United States. But I can tell you, you would never see that here. We don't have a star system with our athletes that would allow it. Athletes are taken extremely seriously in the United States and there's a sense of apathy among voters."

Apathy may better describe the political awareness of most athletes. Some estimate that as few as 20% of professional athletes are even registered to vote. Even when the exigencies of politics affect them directly--such as Jimmy Carter's boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics--athletes are at a loss to fully understand their place in the political world.

For journalists, getting an athlete to discuss politics is often excruciating: Many are reluctant to broach the topic, following the advice of their agents, who understand that an "incorrect" position may cost their client votes where it really counts--among potential sponsors.

When he was coaching at Arkansas, football coach Lou Holtz appeared in a television commercial for controversial North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. Holtz came under such fire that the ad was pulled and he was made to promise that in the future he would restrict himself to coaching football players, not voters.

When Washington Redskin offensive lineman Ray Schoenke organized athletes to campaign for George McGovern's presidential campaign in 1972, he said he nearly lost his job. That, and "Johnny Unitas called me a pinko Communist."

While most of Tuesday's races were contested at a state level, athletic ability is no disqualifier for the Oval Office: Bob Dole was a standout high school athlete whose athletic aspirations were cut short because of the injuries he sustained in WWII, George Bush was the captain of the Yale's baseball team, Ronald Reagan was a scholarship football player, Jimmy Carter pitched for the baseball team at Navy, Gerald Ford was an All-American football player at Michigan.

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