Why professional athletes are running from public office

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

In an era of uninformed voters, one would think politically engaged and trustworthy prominent athletes that have demonstrated success on the field while keeping their noses clean would be at a distinct advantage running for public office. After all, they enjoy the benefits of name recognition and media adulation, as well as the halo effect associated with society’s fondness for sports and, in some cases, the financial wherewithal to jump-start their own campaigns.

Yet, as noted by USA Today politics editor Paul Singer, Tuesday’s elections could result in something that hasn’t occurred since 1961 – no former professional athletes in the United States Congress. Is this an anomaly or a trend? Are the cupboards barren of qualified former athletes or have they — or has recent history — determined that the road may be too risky to navigate?

Before big money infiltrated sports and provided players with massive salaries and endorsement opportunities, the likes of Bill Bradley (U.S. Senator 1979-1997), Jack Kemp (U.S. Congressman 1971-1989) and Jim Bunning (U.S. Congressman 1987-1999, U.S. Senator 1999-2011) reflected the crossover of sports, business, leadership and politics.

Credit: Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Jim O’Connor-USA TODAY Sports

A generation later, athlete-entertainers Jesse Ventura (Governor of Minnesota 1999-2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Governor of California 2003-2011) were in vogue.

Fast forward to 2014. Where are these high-profile personalities?  Fundamentally, it may be about the money. Perhaps high-profile athletes are unwilling to forego future earnings, especially from endorsements, in exchange for taking a political stand. Budding NBA superstar Michael Jordan may or may not have quipped, “Republicans buy sneakers, too” when asked why he would not endorse African-American democrat Harvey Gantt over conservative republican Jesse Helms in a North Carolina senate race, but the point hit home.

Add to this financial self-preservation the TMZification of today’s celebrity culture. Many athletes fully appreciate the power and pitfalls of the media. More to the point, too few seem willing to navigate the 24/7 media cycle, despite being a part of it since playing college sports, if not earlier.

Credit: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
Credit: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

With few exceptions (Sacramento, Calif., mayor Kevin Johnson comes to mind, at least for now), athletes – much like other elected officials – quickly face the reality that, once elected, they get bogged down in the partisan, bureaucratic quagmire that is politics today. In doing so, their halo dims, the voting public’s opinion (informed or not) wanes, and their once-elevated status largely attributable to their athletic prowess carries far less significance.

For better or worse, those athletes on the sidelines that may otherwise have thrown their hat into the political ring instead pursue positions in broadcasting, team front offices or private business.

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