Fit For Office: The Curious Relationship Between Athletes and Politicians

By Matthew Stewart

Over the course of the next several weeks, we’ll be hearing a lot about competitors putting into action their strategies and playbooks. There will be egregious mistakes, entertaining and historic moments, close battles and blowouts alike. There will be winners and losers, heroes and goats, and when the dust settles we will all wake up the next day and analyze what worked and what went wrong in the doing.

You could — when it comes to that paragraph — be thinking about the start of NFL football, the MLB World Series, or the Republican and Democrat primary campaigns. They are — at least in the way they seem to compel our discourse — remarkably similar.

Politics and sports have always had a sort of inseparable quality about them, both cast as two fundamental building blocks upon which Americans have forged their unique identity. The two have intersected frequently and — whether together or separate — have come to define the way Americans view themselves and are viewed around the world. Beyond that, they have always influenced America’s cultural conversation.

Famously, in 1930, Babe Ruth responded to a question regarding his salary being $5,000 higher than President Herbert Hoover by claiming, “I had a better year than Hoover.”

2001_World_Series_first_pitchThat curious fascination (and bridge) between sport and politics has naturally created crossover appeal. Most every year the President of the United States, for example, will throw out a ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game. In 2004 during the Republican National Convention, pundits often used President George W. Bush’s first pitch at Yankee stadium after the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an example of American resolve in the face of uncertainty.

“It was one of the most dramatic moments of my presidency,” said Bush in a FOXSports interview earlier this year. This, from a man whose Presidency saw two wars, a historic natural disaster in New Orleans, and the near-collapse of the Federal Reserve system.

On the flip side, athletes have also always had a curious interest in politics and motivation to pursue office in their post-playing days. This has essentially always been true: Hall-of-Fame pitcher Walter Johnson served on the Milwaukee County Board of Commissioners in 1938 and launched an unsuccessful House of Representatives bid in 1940.

Abraham Lincoln was considered a skilled wrestler, and Theodore Roosevelt a boxer. 

In another example, Abner Doubleday’s post-Civil War career was certainly aided by incorrect attributions as the inventor of baseball.

In more recent history, this has been especially true. Former NBA player Kevin Johnson is now the mayor of Sacramento, California. Former MLB player Jim Bunning was a United States Senator for Kentucky from 1999 until 2011. Olympic Gold medalist and NBA player Bill Bradley was a US Senator for New Jersey from 1979-1997, and in 2000 launched an unsuccessful Presidential bid. Former bodybuilding champion Arnold Schwarzenegger and former bodybuilder and pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura both served as governors. Dave Bing, the mayor of Detroit, was a seven-time NBA All-Star. Jack Kemp, former Bills and Chargers Quarterback, was Housing Secretary during the George H.W. Bush administration, and the Vice Presidential candidate in the 1996 general election.

So what is it, exactly, that has compelled such a strong relationship between sports and politics throughout American history, and especially so in the last 50 years?

Former NBA player and Congressman Tom McMillen believes athlete’s ability to “collaborate” and “get along” within a team structure makes them suitable for politics. The late Jack Kemp’s foundation has an entire academy dedicated to introducing athletes into public service for similar reasons.

There is also the inescapable and obvious aspects of politics for which athletes are already prepared: Athletes generally have sound financial prospects, and have already established in-roads in their local communities. It is, thus, much easier to become an established political brand when everyone knows you and there is less money to be raised. Athletic prowess has also often been associated with masculinity and toughness; both attributes which Americans generally find attractive in their leaders.

But the transition from political figure to political actor has often been difficult for athletes, and a majority of the time their runs in political service are brief.

In his PhD dissertation, political scientist Nicholas Coburn-Palo attributes this to the difference between political performance and political results. While athletes are good at improvising and thinking on their feet — skills that can help them in a winner-take-all campaign environment — they are often surprised by the different and difficult nature of effecting change through government. In an interview with Brown University, Coburn-Palo stated:

Once you’re elected, you no longer hear the cheering crowd. Both Bing and Johnson, when they started their terms in office, assumed their team would look at them like the point guard and follow in line behind them. They forgot that in the world of politics, everyone has their own package of interests. For both Bing and Johnson that was a big transition.

Will this trend of pro athletes involvement in politics continue? It’s hard to say. When former offensive lineman Jon Runyan lost his seat in 2014, it marked the first time since 1960 that no professional athletes resided in Congress. That is essentially unmatched by any other outside profession in history; and certainly none for which there seems to be no other civic connection. Still, so long as pro athletes have built-in advantages in their communities, and so long as the same spirit of competition and accomplishment can be attained through public service in their post-playing days as when they suited up, the potential for athletes to go into politics looms large.

Of course, politicians love to dote on their athletic accomplishments and general sports knowledge, anyway. Just ask Barack Obama about basketball, or any number of Congress people about their golf game. And if you want to become the next mayor or county commissioner in your local area, hey, maybe take up running or racquetball. It certainly can’t hurt.

Matthew Stewart is a Masters student in American History at Norwich University. His research interests include the American Civil War and the relationship between American history, public institutions and popular memory.

9 thoughts on “Fit For Office: The Curious Relationship Between Athletes and Politicians

  1. It seems that most politicians have either worked in the areas of law or business or have a long line of politicians in their families. A professional athlete turned politician might be a breath of fresh air for some voters. For the most part, professional athletes don’t discuss their political views so the fans and potential voters like them for other reasons, like representing their city or state in the sport, their athletic ability, their leadership, etc. Do you think, Mr. Stewart, that a professional athlete might be successful in a national election? It seems that most of those who have been elected into public office have done so on a state level. I can’t help but wonder if that is because of the local representation that so many of them provide for the state on whose team they play. To make a career change from professional wrestler to state governor doesn’t seem as absurd to people as that transition to the presidency.

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    • Hi Melissa,

      Thanks for the reply. You make some interesting points.

      I would agree that athletes typically benefit from the idea of insurgent candidacies and anti-establishment cred. because they don’t come from what is considered a “typical” politician’s background. It has always been politically expedient in our history to be viewed as an “outsider”, at least by the prognosticators.

      To your point about athletes discussing their political beliefs: I agree, but this is becoming less true. With the jumps in technology and 24-hour news cycles, we know more about the personal lives of athletes than ever before. And one of the few redeeming qualities of our current Super PAC political system is the greater level of transparency we have in knowing who the powerful and wealthy politically support with their money.

      Might a professional athlete ever be successful in a national election? It is certainly possible, but I would not suspect it is likely in the near future that an athlete could go directly from their career in athletics to the oval office. With just a few (mostly military) exceptions — and no exception in modern elections — every President has had some executive or legislative experience with a state before reaching the White House, so athletes would likely be no different.

      The reason this seems to be especially difficult for athletes-turned-politicians relates back to the comment from Nicholas Coburn-Palo in the post: Athletes tend to be well suited for the rigors of a campaign (maybe similar to the rigors of a “season”?), and less suited to the realities of public service once winning the job.

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  2. I certainly agree with the reasoning behind this relationship that you discussed in your blog such as similar character traits such as teamwork, competitiveness and goal oriented. You also touched upon the idea that athletes have strong roles in their communities giving them a political advantage and I wonder if part of the relationship between athletes and politicians is the way that Americans idolize them and put them on a higher pedestal over the rest of society. As both groups are on that pedestal together I’d imagine it is fairly easy for a relationship to form between them. Your article also made me wonder whether or not you believe this relationship exists in other countries besides the United States or is unique to our country alone?

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    • Hey Mikayla,

      Thanks for your question!

      I don’t know as much about international history as I do American history, so I can’t speak to many specifics. But I would say I think it’s generally true that in Eastern Europe and Asia, being a successful Olympic athlete is considered a rather natural line of ascension into political office.

      It also is generally true that professional soccer players in many countries are held in similar esteem as many Americans hold professional football (gridiron) stars in the United States.

      It is true Americans do have a very doting relationship with its athletic heroes, but I think that is probably true in many countries, just in different sports.

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  3. Politics and sports are two of my favorite hobbies, so when I came across this article I was intrigued with the possibilities that could arise. You made a very interesting comment about the relationship of both politics and sports being “fundamental building blocks” of American identity. I think both sports and politics allow for people to show their pride and heritage through a passion they have, be it sports or politics. Another interesting notion of the connection between the two was the example given about President Bush’s first pitch thrown after the 9/11 attacks. Do you think if he would have cancelled the ceremonial first pitch that Americans would have seen that as a weak political move or one that was made in a time of need?

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  4. I think sports and politics is a very interesting issue to look into. There is a bunch of history supporting that former athletes go into politics. It is pointed out that even presidents were into boxing, basketball and baseball. Throughout history athletes have been placed on a pedestal from gladiators in ancient Rome to football players in recent time. What do you think about the possibility that athletes go into political service to stay in the public eye when their athletic career is over? In your blog you bring up that most athletes’ political careers are short lived. Do you think once they get in office they realize it’s not what they expected and get out? Or they have an agenda and once it’s done they get out?

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  5. I’m actually shocked that not a more famous sports person has not tried to run for a higher office. Maybe that is something that is coming in the near future. Looking how a lot of high profile celebrities are throwing their hat into the political arena without really any political background and being successful. Me personally as a voter I would pick an athlete over and actor any day. The statement that was made regarding the attributes of an athlete correlating to politics was dead on for me. How they were already prepared for that task and they were already a “brand”. Who knows maybe Tom Brady or Payton Manning will run for president against Kanye West next time around. In your opinion do you think a more iconic athlete will throw his or her hat into the ring?

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  6. Pingback: The Intellectual Coach | s-usih.org

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