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.”
That 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.
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.