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If You Like the Super Bowl, Does That Make You a Republican?

4 years ago
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Sure, everyone loves the Super Bowl, or at least enough of us to make a quorum or threaten a filibuster. Some 100 million Americans will watch this Sunday's championship spectacular, or at least parts of it. There are the ads, of course, (though not the gay dating service commercial), and the betting pools (all in good fun, natch) and the perfect excuse to have a great party. In other words, something for everyone.

But what about the game itself? If that's what you're really into, does that make you a Republican? You might think so, given the evidence.
Just look at all the Republicans who are former football players. The late Jack Kemp was a standout quarterback for the Buffalo Bills before becoming a supply-side Republican. Seattle Seahawks Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent was elected to Congress during the Republican revolution of 1994 (he served until 2002). And Nebraska Cornhuskers' coach Tom Osborne left the sidelines in 2000 to serve three terms in the House as a Republican. Not to mention Gerald Ford, who had an impressive college career at Michigan.

Interestingly, the closer to the Beltway they get, it seems the more Republican they become. Former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs is a staple on the GOP rubber chicken circuit, and George Allen, Jr., son of another legendary Redskins coach, went on to become a conservative Virginia governor and senator. (Richard Nixon reportedly drafted a trick play for the elder George Allen; it resulted in a 13 yard loss when the Redskins tried it.)

Now former Cincinnati Bengals coach Sam Wyche is mulling a run for Congress as a Republican from South Carolina, where is he is a football legend, and in September retired Bills and Steelers tight end Jay Riemersma announced he's running for Congress in Michigan -- as a Republican. Former Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman Jon Runyan is considering a run for Congress against a freshman Democrat in New Jersey. And ESPN analyst and former NFL standout Craig James is considering a run for Kay Bailey Hutchison's Senate seat in Texas when she vacates it later this year.

There's also an emerging body of data that seems to indicate a Republican tilt to the football industry.

As the Center for Responsive Politics reported last September, NFL owners and executives have become significant political donors, and they mainly back Republican candidates. Since 1990, owners and executives have donated $5.5 million to GOP politicians -- and less than a third of that, some $1.5 million, to Democrats. Even if you subtract the $2.4 million that the San Diego Chargers alone donated, mainly to Republicans, the GOP still has a better than two-to-one edge.

No wonder Rush Limbaugh was recruited (before that bid went south over his past remarks on race) as a partner for the St. Louis Rams ownership.

So what is it about football that attracts Republicans?

One argument cites regional factors. "Many of these guys are Southerners...which happens to be both the part of their country where the politics are generally more socially conservative, and their football celebrity is the most help in getting elected," Chris Brown, editor of the Smart Football website, told Politico.

That could help explain the unusual presence of Democratic congressman Heath Shuler of North Carolina, the 1993 Heisman Trophy runner-up for the University of Tennessee, former Washington Redskins quarterback and, Politico says, the only pro football player ever to win a high-profile or national race as a Democrat.

But Shuler himself chalks up his success to the work ethic that he brought to the public square directly from the football stadium. "You're constantly working in professional sports," Shuler told me. "And I think that follows hand in hand with what you do in public service. You're constantly working."

Then again, J.C. Watts, the former University of Oklahoma star quarterback and CFL player who was elected to the House as part of the Republican revolution of 1994, argues that the work ethic Shuler cited is integral to the gospel that Republicans preach -- and he notes that Shuler, a Blue Dog Democrat, is plenty conservative. "The values that Republicans espouse in terms of capitalism, free enterprise, responsibility, working hard, sacrifice and commitment -- that message probably resonates with the majority of athletes a lot more," said Watts, who retired in 2003 after eight years in Congress.

Others chalk it up to the fact that pro athletes make lots of money, and the more money you have the more likely you are to vote GOP. In fact, numbers-cruncher Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com found that active players who he could identify as having made political contributions were twice as likely to donate to Republicans. As Silver notes, that makes sense in that NFL players earn a good living, averaging $770,000 a year. And football players are (for now) all men, and men are significantly more likely to identify as Republicans than as Democrats.

Then there is the argument that the dynamic of smashmouth football also reflects the rough-and-tumble, win-now-or go-home politics practiced by the GOP since at least the days of Ronald Reagan (who of course played "the Gipper" on film) and the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater. Either by stealth attacks or guerilla tactics or the use of overwhelming force, Republican politics has taken on a competitive, almost martial tone.

The late George Carlin's classic riff on the difference between baseball and football -- "Football is played in any kind of weather...In baseball, if it rains, we don't go out to play" -- nicely sums up the Mars-Venus differential that seems to exist between Republicans and Democrats:
"In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line. In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe!"
If as, the military strategist Von Clausewitz famously said, war is the extension of politics by other means, perhaps the inverse is also true -- and maybe the football stadium is the best training ground for the blood sport of contemporary politics, especially of the Republican variety. Not only are many former football players Republicans, but most former pro athletes in politics are football players. Yes, the former world-record miler, Jim Ryun, served as a Republican from Kansas in the House from 1996 to 2007, and former major leaguer Jim Bunning, a seven-time All-Star and a Republican, has been Kentucky's junior senator since 1999.

But football players dominate. One reason may be that contrary to their "dumb jock" stereotype, football players are more likely to go through all four years of college rather than heading straight to the pros or the minor leagues, the way basketball and baseball players do. They also have shorter playing careers on average, so they'd better be thinking about a Plan B career pretty early on.

Yet if American politics today is better described as a game of football rather than the "horse race" analogy that is usually invoked, is that a good thing for the country -- or even for the Republican Party?

President Obama doesn't seem to think so. As he lamented at the National Prayer Breakfast last Thursday, Washington politics today is "an all-or-nothing sport, where one side is either always right or always wrong."

Then again, Obama is a basketball player and fan. And basketball as an indicator of political leanings? Anyone remember "Dollar Bill" Bradley?

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