Athletes and the political game: A long-term engagement

Actually, Politics and Sport have long been interesting bedfellows. The union has been warm and cozy, if also controversial.

Not so long ago an ex-football coach from Nebraska, an All-American QB from Oklahoma, an all-pro wideout from Washington, and a reformed 6-11 center from North Carolina sat together in the Congress with varying degrees of distinction.  It’s equally a fact not a one of them would have had a ghost of a chance of getting there without having sporting laurels to recommend them.   

‘Tis ever been thus. Football great Byron “Whizzer” White played the system smartly all the way to the US Supreme Court. Bob Mathias parlayed a couple of Olympic gold medals into a Congressional term. Kentucky sent Baseball Hall of Famer Jim Bunning to the Senate for 12 years, although, truth be told, while there he was named that chamber’s least able performer.

At the other extreme, the most able celebrity ex-jock to graduate from big sport to big government was Jack Kemp. Diligent and sincere, the gritty ex-AFL quarterback turned impassioned Congressman earned high praise – at least in conservative circles – for his creative thinking on economics for which he was ultimately honored with the GOP’s vice presidential nod on Bob Dole’s 1996 ticket. That they got swamped by Bill Clinton and Al Gore was hardly Kemp’s fault.

Many who’ve won the White House have reasonably boasted of athletic achievement while others have eagerly played the jock card, that having always been politic. If you want to be boss of the Culture, you gotta be one of the boys.

By any measure of their times, George Washington and Abe Lincoln were superior athletes and Teddie Roosevelt even more so.  Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford were college football stars with Ford a bona fide All-American. Jack Kennedy swam, sailed, played touch football. Harry Truman walked. Jimmie Carter jogged. George Bush the elder was Yale’s baseball captain. Ronald Reagan once pretended to be George Gipp. Barack Obama’s love affair with basketball is proper legend.  Since Ike, they’ve all, save maybe for Carter and Reagan, been smitten by golf. Richard Nixon, for sure, and possibly also George Bush the younger might have become Baseball commissioners had they not stuck (alas or otherwise) with politics.

But happily (so far) in our history none of our sporting demigods has had the gall to present himself as worthy of the nation’s ultimate honor mainly on the basis of an eminence in any of the games we play, although that day will come surely as Donald Trump’s has.

 Maybe so far we’ve been lucky. Our most mesmerizing jock-heroes have been indifferent to politics. The Muhammad Alis and Michael Jordans have had no interest while such as Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, et al., were contemptuous of such fancies. But given the right set of circumstances, “change,” as they say, always  sells. The entrance for celebrities, first inched ajar by Mr. Reagan, has now been flung wide open by Mr. Trump.

In that regard, it may not be too early to worry about what will amuse Tom Brady once his days of gridiron semi-sainthood finally fade in another decade or so. Might LeBron James, ardent cheerleader for Hillary Clinton, have similar ambitions? In the meantime, we have the threatened US Senate candidacy of Curt Schilling, burned-out pitcher born again as populist-pol, to edify us. It’s a great country!

Much as there’s nothing new about this phenomenon, it’s hardly confined to our own vast and inscrutable Republic. Dating back to the Greeks and Romans, politicians have always used sporting heroes to further their ends, and vice versa.

It was one of Hitler’s favorite devices in his nefarious manipulation of the masses. When Max Schmeling was riding high, the estimable heavyweight was a Nazi favorite although in the end, Max, a clever fellow, played Hitler even more artfully than Hitler played him.

Soccer stars have always been huge chips in the tumultuous political games of South America. Hockey stars have choice posts in Russia’s bureaucracy.

But there may be no better example than the current fascinating relationship of Philippine superstars: Manny Pacquiao, the era’s greatest boxer and the Philippines’ greatest sports hero, and Rodrigo Duterte, that country’s tempestuous and intensely controversial president.  As long as he has Pacquiao in his pocket, it’s said, Duterte has the people with him, no matter how erratic his leadership.  

Might sports, in the Trump era, attain even greater prominence and influence in our culture? Could be!  Unmistakably, he’s drawn to the stuff. There has been his deep and colorful association with football and wrestling and his long-time fondness for hanging out at Yankee Stadium with “the boys.”

Reportedly, he is emphatically on file with the Steinbrenner Family to be first in line to bid if they ever put the Yankees up for sale.

You may wish to ponder the irony of that, either with cheers or tears! Depending on your politics!