The Politicalization of American Athletes

Tim Tebow, Craig James, Heath Schuler and Lynn Swann, a Mount Rushmore of American Athlete Attempts at a Political Career

“I haven’t ruled it out. Whatever avenue I feel like I can make a difference in, I’d love to do. I haven’t ruled out anything like that. It won’t be anytime soon in my future, but it’ll be something I’ll at least look at and consider one day.”
-Tim Tebow, New York Jets quarterback, on his future in politics

In a recent interview with Rich Cimini of ESPN New York, New York Jets backup quarterback Tim Tebow answered a question from Cimini with the above statement. The exact question that Cimini asked was, “With your popularity, especially in Florida, would you ever consider running for political office after you’re done with football?”

Focus on one word in that question that Cimini asked Tebow – popularity. Tebow hasn’t done anything to show the public he has political aspirations, yet because he’s a popular figure in today’s culture, it didn’t come as a shock that the question was posed. We know nothing about Tebow’s political position. Sure, we can draw some conclusions based on what we know about him – where he grew up, his family, his religion – but we don’t know his perspective on the United States economy or foreign affairs or healthcare or education. Yet, somehow the man is thrown around as a somewhat viable future political candidate. That’s not a jab at Tebow. I don’t fault him at all. The question came out of nowhere. He’s the type of guy that wants to help people and make a difference, so maybe he would be good in politics. At the very least, I can see how he would think he can help people through a political career.

What I’m asking is should we even be discussing him as a political candidate?

Tebow certainly wouldn’t be the first athlete to enter the political arena after his sports career ends. Athletes love competition, they love the stardom they have with fans, they love winning. It’s no surprise that a life in politics would enter the minds of some after they leave athletics. Some have even been successful in politics. Bill Bradley, Jack Kemp, JC Watts, Jim Bunning, Steve Largent and Heath Schuler have all seen some degree of success in politics after retiring from their respective sports. Recently we’ve also seen Jon Runyan, Kevin Johnson and Dave Bing enter office. However, for every Bradley or Kemp there’s a Lynn Swann or, even worse, Craig James that has failed.

Countless other athletes such as Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal have been asked about taking a stab at politics.

Why are we even asking them about the possibility of entering politics though?

Because they’re popular.

The same reason Tebow was asked.

I’d like to say that those elected to public office are the best leaders, the most intelligent, the ones with the best plan. Unfortunately I can’t say that. In most instances, it’s not the best and brightest that are running for leadership positions in our political landscape. It’s often people that are popular. Or charismatic. Or even worse, power hungry. Right now we’re in the midst of a presidential election between current president Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Are these two men the smartest we have to choose from? Probably not. Are they the very best leaders for our country? Debatable. They’re likeable to their respective side of the political aisle though.

Politics are a popularity contest. Years ago, it was who was popular with the backroom cronies and good ‘ol boys of each political party. Today it’s who’s popular with the general American public – who’s charismatic, who looks the part? Go back to even George Washington. He was elected not because of any grand plan he had for the young United States, but because he was the commander in chief that had just led us to our freedom.

When you think about it that way, the way that many politicians rise to prominence, it comes as no surprise that athletes are looked at as potential political candidates. They’re always in the eye of the public. We know them. We recognize them. We’re comfortable with them. So we push them toward the role. Few probably came to the idea on their own, others led them in that direction.

Initially, I began writing this post with the intent to criticize the people that put athletes on a pedestal and push them toward politics. As I began actually typing it out I realized that we actually treat athletes no differently than the others we push into politics. Popularity and awareness rule. It’s why Minnesota elected this guy as governor. So I can’t blame people for doing what the regular, non sports loving population does. And couldn’t you just see Derek Jeter, Drew Brees, David Robinson or Brett Favre serving as a Congressman? Ok, maybe not Favre, but then again… He does remind me of a certain saxophone wielding man from Arkansas that used to lead our country.

By Kevin York
Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kevin_york