Taking the Leap: Sports to Politics

Shaun AhmadSenior Analyst INovember 10, 2008

As the election season has come to a close, a new and somewhat groundbreaking trend can be seen emerging. No, it doesn’t have to do with the race of President-Elect Barack Obama or the sex of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. Actually, it couldn’t be less related.

More and more, we are seeing former athletes thrown into the political arena and doing quite well. 

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Especially given the fact that so much of the news we hear about athletes off the field is through stories such as Michael Vick and dogfighting or Adam “Pacman” Jones getting into trouble for the umpteenth time.

But like anything in life, there is always more than meets the eye, and examining past the knuckleheads of sports, one can find a talented crop of individuals with minds that flourish outside of the arena or stadium that they called home for so many years.

Recently, former NBA guard Kevin Johnson was elected as Mayor of his hometown city of Sacramento. Johnson had been a community leader by volunteering hours of his time throughout his career to bring positive change to rough neighborhoods. Rather than spending time driving $250,000 cars or hanging in clubs, Johnson found other areas of motivation for his life after basketball. Gradually, he climbed the political ladder to become Mayor, much like he climbed up depth charts his entire basketball career.

Though most don’t know about Johnson, given his quiet demeanor, there is another big name that might make a huge splash (no pun intended) a couple of years down the road. Can you imagine switching over from TNT to C-SPAN and seeing Charles Barkley voicing his loud and imposing opinion on someone a third of his size on the issue of taxes, instead of traveling violations in the NBA? 

It could happen, as the former NBA All-Star has been adamant about the possibility of running for Governor in Alabama. Though it may seem unrealistic at first, it has become clear that people today care more about stances on issues that affect them than someone’s race, ethnicity, or past. If Sir Charles can win people over with his blue-collar approach to issues that matter, don’t be surprised if we replace “Sir” with “Governor."  

Further back in time, a time most kids of this generation haven’t even read about, NBA Hall of Famer Bill Bradley made the switch over from the basketball court to United States Senator. Granted, his mind was leaning towards politics well before he became an NBA legend, the transition was still unprecedented.   

It’s not just basketball players who are making the switch. Quarterback Heath Shuler was drafted third overall by the Washington Redskins out of the University of Tennessee. While he didn’t find a home for long, wearing the burgundy and gold, he managed to stay in the area by earning a position in the House of Representatives out of his home state.

The most successful politician with a history in sports was none other than the 38th President of the United States, Gerald Ford.  Most of those in the current generation don't know that Ford played center and linebacker with the University of Michigan's undefeated title teams of 1932 and 1933.  Perhaps his decision to become President and lead an entire country overshadowed his athletic accomplishments - just a bit. 

Steve Largent, a hall of fame wide recevier for the Seattle Seahawks, had a successful run as a congressman and held a seat in the House of Representatives for nearly a decade.  Though he was unsuccessful in his bid to become Governor of the state of Oklahoma, his political career is far from over.  Known as a leader by example, Largent carried over many of the same qualities that made him an NFL Star along with him to Washington D.C.   

The most recent NFL player to throw his name into the ring is former Florida State star, Peter Boulware.  Boulware was a standout linebacker who went on to be drafted in the first round (fourth overall) by the Baltimore Ravens.  After eight years in the pros, Boulware made the move over to politics.  He recently ran for a position in the United States House of Representatives.  His younger brother, Michael Boulware, currently plays strong safety for the Minnesota Vikings. 

So how is it that all of these athletes are finding their ways into positions of power; positions that are worthy of envy from Harvard and Yale grads who sometimes fail to reach their pinnacle? How is it that someone can go from a career revolving around some form of a ball to making decisions that affect masses of people on important issues, from taxes to health care to Social Security?   

The answer is surprisingly simple. Athletes go into the political world with three clear and distinct advantages.

First, they know how to handle the spotlight. If you look back at some of the most politically gifted minds who couldn’t make it, the vast majority have a common denominator. They were unable to handle the pressures of having the camera lights of the public on them at all hours of the day.

Since we live in a world where perception is reality, one slip up or sign of weakness when everyone is watching is all it takes to undermine everything that you’ve accomplished. One flare up or angry outburst and you’re out. Google “Howard Dean Angry” and you’ll find thousands of hits on his one outburst that took away any chance he had for the Presidency in 2004.    

Athletes are used to this; they’re immune to a certain extent. Throughout their careers, they played under the spotlight of anywhere between 15,000-100,000 fans live in attendance and millions of others on television. They know what it’s like to have people watching your every single step, your every single move. They know that each facial expression or sign of body language can cause you to look like a bad team player, which leads to a bad reputation, which leads to less endorsements, which leads to less money.

The athlete knows what’s at stake when under the limelight, and they know how to handle themselves accordingly—the successful ones, anyway. You can’t replace 10 or 20 years of that sort of experience by any amount of public-speaking books or courses.

The second reason athletes turn up in positions of leadership is because, to play at a professional level, they have had to be leaders for most of their careers. These players are the cream of the crop. To get to the professional level, they had to lead their high-school teams or their college teams to success. They know what it takes to make believers out of their peers.

Athletes who have been successful have the same leadership qualities as politicians. Whether a person of political prominence is rallying a group of supporters before an election or a quarterback is rallying his entire football team going into the fourth quarter, the message is the same: “Follow me and I will lead us to success.  I will lead us to victory." 

The third reason is their drive and determination. Remember, to achieve their career accolades, they had to differentiate themselves from millionsof others who attempted to accomplish the same goals that they did. When someone like Charles Barkley ends up a Hall of Famer, it is not by accident. It is through years and years of nonstop effort, determination, and resilience to achieve their goal. Being in political office is no different. 

These athletes found a way to work from the ground up, doing charitable community events, volunteer work, and so forth to get their foot in the door. Once they did that, their competitive drive kicked in to push them to find new ways, more effective ways, to help their community or city.

Slowly but surely, they inched their way up the totem pole, much like anything else they have attempted in life. Their drive and competitiveness to do things their own way for the betterment of the team—or in this case, their community—is what has helped them conquer the stereotypes of “dumb jock." 

Given the three advantages athletes have, it is not surprising that they are becoming more and more involved in politics, and it is a good thing that they are, granted that they are knowledgeable on the issues. I believe the notion that an athlete gets elected here and there because of their former standing in sports is not giving the American public enough credit. We, as a people, can separate athletic achievements and prowess with political knowledge and capabilities. 

The more athletes that continue to break down the barrier of being seen as jocks rather than intellects, the more we will see them leading our community and city causes the way they once lead our teams on game-winning drives. At the end of the day, that’s a good thing.