Sweep Right

The stadium scene.
June 13 2001 3:00 AM

Sweep Right

Why are all jock politicians Republicans?

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If there's one congressional faction unfazed by Washington's frequent calls for bipartisanship, it's the jock caucus. That's because it's all Republican. Olympic miler Jim Ryun and gridiron stars Steve Largent and J.C. Watts are in the House. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who competed in judo in the 1964 Olympics, and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning are in the Senate. In last fall's election, the GOP picked up a coach, Nebraska Rep. Tom Osborne, and an owner, President George W. Bush. Republicans aren't throwing a shutout just in Washington. They have far more prospects in their farm system of state and local offices, and they have a number of athletes ready to be drafted: Former San Francisco 49ers teammates Steve Young and Brent Jones are considering future runs as GOP candidates in California. John Elway may scramble for Congress in Colorado. Karl Malone, who doubles as a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, is talking about the Utah governorship. Charles Barkley keeps threatening to run for office in Alabama, and Portland Trailblazer Greg Anthony is mulling a political career in the New York area.

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It wasn't always this way. A decade ago, led by hoopsters Bill Bradley and Tom McMillen (a former Maryland congressman), the Democrats fielded a competitive lineup of jock politicians. But these days they have just former NFL linebacker Pat Swilling, who is a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives, and Alan Page, a Hall of Fame defensive lineman with the Minnesota Vikings, who sits on the Minnesota Supreme Court. Here's why Republicans are running up the score:

It's about the money. When Charles Barkley's grandmother asked him why he was joining the "party of the rich," Barkley replied, "Grandma, we are rich." That first hefty paycheck can sway an athlete to the right. "You cannot underestimate the tax issue," says sports agent Leigh Steinberg, who is active in Democratic politics but has a mostly Republican clientele. "Withholding is a wake-up call for them to what government actually costs."

But the proliferation of Republican athletes goes beyond tax brackets. Many black athletes see their financial success purely as a product of their athletic abilities, Greg Anthony says. And that distances them from traditional (read: Democratic) government solutions that haven't worked for other members of their community.

A different union label. Union leadership is usually a training ground for Democratic politics. But not sports union leadership. Jack Kemp and Mike Kenn, a Republican county commissioner in Georgia, both served as president of the National Football League Players Association. Kenn notes that the players unions, particularly in football, are really partners with the owners. In fact, the usual positions are flipped. The owners are part of a government-protected cartel, while the players are independent contractors. "An athlete is a small business owner whose product is yourself," Brent Jones says.

Perhaps it's not surprising that a profession that puts a premium on unbridled competition and pay-for-performance accountability would trend Republican. "We're assessed daily by our coaches, in the newspaper, and by the fans," says Scott Gragg, a San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman who expects to one day run for office in his native Montana. "If we're not doing the job, we're gone."

"I'd like to thank God." Gragg is an evangelical Christian, a group that's becoming as much a part of professional sports as it is a part of the GOP. Reps. Largent, Ryun, and Watts, Missouri State Sen. Bill Kenney (a former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback), and Olympic swimmer Josh Davis, another future politico, have all been involved with socially conservative groups such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action. There's even an evangelical ministry called Champions for Christ that provides agents for players like Mark Brunell and Tony Boselli, who return 10 percent of their paychecks to the ministry. These groups have become a direct pipeline to the GOP, and the community service and public speaking these groups encourage end up being excellent training for the political game.

Geography is political destiny. For the past half-century, pro sports have advanced steadily into the Sunbelt. New or relocated franchises have been placed in Arizona, Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina. As a result, more and more athletes spend a good deal of their time in warmer, and generally more conservative, climes.

Athletic migration to the United States has a similar effect. Locker rooms are filling with international athletes who escaped socialist or Communist regimes and have a newfound appreciation for American conservatism. "The Democrats are for big government," explains Carolina Hurricanes goalie Arturs Irbe, who hails from Latvia. "I experienced that, and I didn't like it."

It's a man thing. Currently, the only top woman athlete in high elective office (Montana Gov. Judy Martz, who was a speed skater in the 1964 Winter Olympics) is a Republican. But female jocks, many of whom benefited from Title IX, figure to have a more positive view of government. They may prove to be fertile ground for Democrats. One athlete who could throw her sports bra into the political ring is U.S. soccer team captain Julie Foudy, nicknamed "The President" by her teammates.

But as with African-American athletes, the Democrats can't take female jocks for granted. After her 2000 U.S. Open victory, Venus Williams used a congratulatory phone call from President Clinton to gripe about the taxes on her prize money.

The bad news for Democrats is that Bush may be solidifying a jock politician majority for decades to come. The president has already had 20 sports-related events at the White House. Before throwing out the first ball at Milwaukee's Miller Park, Bush pitched Cincinnati Reds star Sean Casey on a political career. It's even possible that some future player-turned-candidate will use video of youthful exploits on the White House tee-ball field as Clinton used his Boys Nation handshake with JFK: a harbinger of great political things to come.

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