Thursday, March 15, 2012

Athlete Politicians: Basketball Democrats & Football Republican

I am watching the start of the NCAA tournament  but also watching the Republican nomination process. I just watched the Fan in Chief do his own NCAA brackets. It dawned on me that in so many ways politics and sports naturally converge, certainly the media uses the same language and approach to them. So I thought about athletes who enter politics.

Name recognition alchemizes electoral politics and name recognition with high positive generates electoral gold. This link makes athletics and electoral politics natural fits, and more than a few successful athletes have parlayed their positive fame into electoral victories. Using a totally nonscientific sample of largely ex-professional players, I think that the two sports—football and basketball—launch very different political types.

Let’s start with the similarities of electoral politics and sports. All elite athletes are fierce competitors dedicated to winning. Elite athletes stay in shape and are incredibly driven and persistent; they don’t give up and learn to handle failure and adapt. In modern sports, they learn to handle negative press and personal attacks as well as revel in success. They know how fickle the public can be but hold their professional focus. These character traits prepare them well for electoral politics.

Finally most athletes earn their fame in a local area, and electoral politics remains resolutely local despite the best efforts of national PACS. Most of the politicians I cite either returned home like Largent, Watts or Johnson or built their political base where they played long term like Kemp, Bradley or Bing. They enter at strong local positions such as mayor or US House seats.


So let's think about the hypothetical relations between politics and football and basketball.

Off hand a couple football names come to mind. Steve Largent, the great receiver for the Seattle Seahawks, returned home to Oklahoma and entered politics as a conservative Republican. He served 4 terms in the US House of Representatives but lost in his bid to become Republican governor. J.C. Watts returned home to Oklahoma and ran successfully for the US House of Representative as a black conservative Republican. Eagles' guard John Runyan presently serves in the US House from New Jersey as a conservative Republican. Jack Kemp, one of the most dynamic and interesting politicians of the late twentieth century, was elected from his base as the Buffalo Bills quarterback. He  served 18 years in the House and later as the Secretary of HUD under George H. Bush as well as a Vice Presidential candidate. Non pro but very very football, Tom Osborne, the long time football coach player at Nebraska, served 4 terms in the US House and lost his bid to win the governorship. 

Why would football players make good conservative Republicans? Good question and I will right way eliminate all the head injuries as some wags have suggested.  First, elite athletes believe in individual self-discipline and personal responsibility. The vast majority of players come from working class or deeply disadvantaged backgrounds. All of them achieved success as self-made men and will not believe in an entitled or “hand-out” based world. Second, football depends upon strong authority. Players thrive under strong authoritative leadership. The authority combines with ordered co-operations and teamwork. Third, teams are voluntary associations where people earn their spots in a brutal and relentless meritocracy. Successful teams align voluntary self-disciplined effort and skills with an absolute commitment to common authority—one   mind, one team, one effort, one leader. Finally, violence and aggressiveness dominate the world of football. Teams win with brains but ultimately with the consistent, skillful and borderline legal applications of force and coercion. Football is not just about competition and zero sum win or lose situations but about a world saturated with aggression and violence.

Modern Republicanism, at least, fits naturally with a world view of being surrounded by violent enemies and depending upon a radical self-made effort where people owe little to each other, unless they do so in a voluntary association. It also coexists uneasily with a world of strong authoritarian leadership to mobilize people in a threatening and aggressive world.

Basketball has a long tradition of Democrats. Mo Udall long time Arizona congressman and presidential candidate played basketball for the Denver Nuggets.  Bill Bradley played for years with the New York Knicks and ended up serving 3 terms  in the US Senate representing New Jersey as well as being strongly considered for the Presidency. Tom McMillen played basketball at Maryland and professional at Washington. He later served 3 terms as a member of the US House in Maryland before losing his seat in a redistricting battle. 


One of the issues that lead me to thinking about this was watching Kevin Johnson, the Mayor of Sacramento, lead negotiations to keep the Sacramento Kings at his birth city. He entered started economic development companies in his hometown after going back for his degree at California and then getting a Divinity Degree at Harvard. Dave Bing was elected as a strong reform minded mayor in Detroit after playing for the Pistons for 16 years and then founding a successful local business. 

Now why might basketball turn out Democrats? Well race might seem obvious since 82 percent of NBA players are black compared to 65 % in football, except football culture trumps race in the case of folks like J. C. Watts or Lynn Swann. Elite basketball athletes would share the same mind-set of self-made individuals as well as the disciplined and focus competitive world-view. But basketball presents a very different view of authority and how the world works. Basketball unfolds as a continuous sport, not a reset sport. No one gets to stop after each event and call plays and start over. Authority is not authoritarian in such conditions. It must be adaptable, fluid and open to a wider range of permutations in real time. In basketball you don't just do what you are told, you see and adapt while the coach watches from the side. While physical, basketball does not possess nearly the level of sheer violence or injury. It requires aggressiveness but of a much more blended type. Basketball never stops moving. It is chaotic and fast and requires incessant and fluid awareness to master the sport. Players relate to authority differently. 

Authority remains more fluid since coaches cannot stop play each play an impose order. The power of the floor general or point guard grows and takes far more time. The teamwork is much less rigid. More room exists for egos  and individuality because the teams are smaller and more exposed rather than the faceless weaponized modern football players.  Basketball presents a world with much more individualized play, more styles, more chaos and much less overt and direct aggressive violence. It also requires a comfort with endless vaguely ordered chaos.

If you watch the modern democratic politics, it remains a more chaotic, pluralistic and diffuse coalition. The politics requires adaptability and movement and comfort with chaos and innovation; authority is simply far less certain and diversity of style far wider. The world view opens to more than just zero sum solutions or aggressive and violent enemies. 

I may think more about this and wonder what to do with Arnold Schwarzenegger and body-building or or Jesse Ventura and professional wrestling, but that is another story, as is baseball.

As I think more about football and Republicans I remember that Richard Nixon played football at Whittier College, Dwight Eisenhower played football at West Point until he was injured. Gerald Ford played football at Michigan and Ronald Reagan played football at Notre Dame. No wait! He played George Gipper in the movie Knute Rockne, but in modern America there is no difference.

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