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Sam Kouvaris commentary: Sports and politics, not so strange bedfellows

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(Matthew Healey-Pool/Getty Images)

It’s always amusing to see which “celebrities” claim they’ll be moving to a different country if a candidate they don’t like wins an election.  Cher recently said she’d “move to Jupiter” if Donald Trump was elected president. Sports stars haven’t gone that far, but support for political candidates and causes is embedded in sports culture. Michael Jordan was roundly criticized during his career for not taking a stand on political issues.  “Republicans also buy shoes” was his answer for not supporting a Democrat candidate in North Carolina. (He denies saying that.) Ronald Reagan leaned on his portrayal of George Gipp, “The Gipper,” during his campaign and time in the White House.

In 2016, LeBron James introduced Hillary Clinton at a rally while Bill Belichick penned a letter of support to Donald Trump. Former Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Shilling was recently fired for airing his political views. ESPN has intertwined a litany of Trump jokes and references into their most recent coverage. 

Prior to his time as the Republican nominee, Donald Trump spent plenty of time in Jacksonville.  In the early ‘80s, Trump was the owner of the USFL’s New Jersey Generals.  He signed Herschel Walker out of Georgia after the Heisman winner’s junior year.  (Walker changed his mind and wanted to return to Georgia but had signed a contract and was ineligible.)  The USFL held several of its owners meetings in North Florida, including one at Amelia Island.  Jacksonville Bulls owner Fred Bullard called Trump “charismatic” but also said that it was Trump’s ideas that put the USFL out of business.  For the record, Trump did admit to trying to force the fledgling league into the fall to directly compete with the NFL, saying if they stayed in the spring they’d be “small potatoes.” (ESPN did a 30-for-30 on the USFL of the same name)

In the last 50 years, sports stars turning to politics as a career has not been unusual.  Arnold Schwarzenegger served as governor of California. Jesse Ventura did the same in Minnesota. Pitcher Jim Bunning was a senator after he retired and Bill Bradley was a senator from New Jersey. He ran for president in 2000.  Steve Largent, Heath Shuler, Tom Osborne, Jim Ryun, and Ralph Metcalfe all won congressional seats after their athletic careers were over. Kevin Johnson is the mayor of Sacramento.  Ander Crenshaw played basketball at Georgia.

Most use their name recognition to gain a foothold in the political arena.  Once there, the rough and tumble world of politics makes competition on an athletic field look tame.  Largent and Osborne lost bids for governor in Oklahoma and Nebraska, the former falling short of the statehouse because of his stand on “cock fighting.”

When it comes to being athletes, American presidents have a varied history.  It wasn’t until the 1940s that anybody paid attention to the president’s athletic prowess.  Prior to that, Teddy Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman, was the only touchstone for athletes.  (Of course, Abraham Lincoln split logs.)  Harry Truman was well known for taking long walks from the White House.  He called it his “morning constitution.”  Dwight Eisenhower was a well-know lover of golf.  They even named a tree after him at Augusta National.  Winnie Palmer gave Arnold a weekend of golf with Eisenhower as a birthday present one year.

While there are a lot of theories about how John Kennedy defeated the sitting Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960, his vitality, backyard touch football games and a general “sporting” personality get some of the credit.  Kennedy also played golf, and the President’s Council on Physical Fitness (and now Sports) was created during his presidency.

Richard Nixon had a swimming pool and bowling lanes put in the basement of the White House. Gerald Ford played big time college football at Michigan.

Jimmy Carter liked tennis so much, he took over the scheduling of the White House tennis court.  Ronald Reagan was a swimmer and a college football player as well.  George H.W. Bush was captain of the Yale baseball team.  He loves golf and fishing and just about any kind of sporting activity.  Bill Clinton’s dedication to golf is well-documented.  George W. Bush also plays golf but is an avid mountain biker as well.  Barack Obama has played more golf in his eight years as president than any other who has ever held the office.  But his first love is basketball, organizing a holiday game every year in D.C.  His Chicago friends joked that while he was living there, he’d play basketball at the local gym constantly, only stepping outside to smoke a cigarette.

A running joke is that athletes want to be musicians and musicians want to be athletes.  Some athletes want to be politicians, and most politicians know, being an athlete, no matter what kind, can help them get elected.