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Are Athletes Underrepresented in American Politics?

Former Congressman and HUD Secretary Jack Kemp

Earlier this week, former Boston Red Sox pitcher, Curt Schilling, announced his intentions to challenge Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) for her Senate seat in 2020.  Between this announcement and the Olympics winding down, it seems appropriate to take a look at the history of professional athletes in American politics.

In a country as enthralled by sports as the United States, the representation of professional athletes in the political system has been surprisingly rare, as shown by the Appendix below.  There are currently no former professional athletes or former Olympians serving in any state governor’s office or Congress.  The most recent athlete in Congress, former Philadelphia Eagle Jon Runyan (R-NJ) retired in 2015 after three terms in Congress.  Prior to Runyan, former Washington Redskins Quarterback, Heath Shuler (D-NC) retired in 2013 following an unsuccessful challenge of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in 2011.

All told, I have found 13 former professional athletes or former Olympians who have served as either Lieutenant Governors (1), governors (1), House members (10), Senators (3), or in an executive department (2).  Three come from the NBA (Bill Bradley, Tom McMillen, and Mo Udall), two from MLB (Jim Bunning and Wilmer Mizell), four from the NFL (Shuler, Runyan, Steve Largent, and Jack Kemp), three are former Olympians (Jim Ryun, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, and Ralph Metcalfe) and one is former WWF wrestler, Jesse Ventura.  Interestingly, no NHL players have ever served in an elected capacity, nor have any tennis players, NASCAR drivers or golfers. 

In spite of how short this list is, many of these figures have had a rather high profile in the political system.  Three of them (Bradley, Udall, and Kemp) contended for their party’s nomination for president, with Kemp gaining the Republican nomination for vice president in 1996.  Kemp is arguably the most accomplished of these names, having not only served in the House, but also as Secretary for Housing and Urban Development under George H.W. Bush.  Kemp remains influential to this day, with Speaker Paul Ryan citing Kemp as his primary mentor and the inspiration for the House Republican agenda.

Kemp’s accomplishments notwithstanding, it is still surprising that so few athletes have served in a high elected office.  Winning an election depends on several crucial factors, such as having the time and money to devote to campaigning.  As such, most members of Congress are either lawyers, businesspeople, or less commonly, teachers before they enter politics. A successful former athlete, especially a high profile former athlete, is more likely to have the money and time necessary for a successful campaign.  Moreover, a high profile athlete is likely to have a preexisting “brand” (Mayhew, 1973) with his constituents from his glory days, one that might be enough to overcome the resume of a more established politician.  As such, it is genuinely puzzling that former athletes are so underrepresented in these elected positions.

The example of Lynn Swann (R-PA), the Hall of Fame Wide Receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, however, sheds some light on why they do not always succeed.  Swann challenged Governor Ed Rendell (D-PA) in 2006 in the Pennsylvania Gubernatorial race.  Republicans hoped that Swann’s popularity in Pittsburgh and in the African-American community might be enough to defeat the popular Rendell in a year that strongly favored the Democrats. However, Swann’s inexperience (combined with the Democratic Party tidal wave) was too much to overcome and Rendell easily defeated him.  Swann’s case shows that the voters are able to differentiate between a person’s athletic skills and a person’s qualifications for elected office.  Swann had an outstanding brand and enjoyed high levels of popularity, but could not overcome his status as a political novice.

So what lessons does this hold for Curt Schilling and any other athletes with political aspirations? First, it is probably better to start small and work your way upwards.  Most of the athletes listed began by serving in the House of Representatives, with a few of them earning higher offices later in their careers.  Jon Runyan, for example, was able to capitalize on his popularity among Eagles fans in South and Central New Jersey to earn a seat in the House.  His electoral fortunes may not have been so great if he had sought statewide office in New Jersey (especially in North Jersey; a region dominated by Giants fans). Second, the normal rules of politics still apply to athletes.  Campaigning requires much in the way of time, money, and discipline, so even a popular athlete must earn the voter’s trust and prove himself qualified for the job he is seeking. Schilling may be beloved in Massachusetts for his contributions to the Red Sox’s 2004 World Series title (including his bloody sock), but as Swann and others show, it will take more than that to win an elected office. 

Alex Welch is a Ph.D. student with the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia and a research assistant at the Miller Center.

Appendix: List of Athletes 

Bill Bradley (NBA HOF, NY Knicks)- Senator, New Jersey

Jim Bunning (MLB HOF, Philadelphia Phillies)- Senator, Kentucky  

Ben N. Campbell (Olympics)- Senator, House, Colorado

Jack Kemp (NFL, Buffalo Bills)- US House, Cabinet Member, New York

Steve Largent (NFL HOF, Seattle Seahawks)- US House, Oklahoma

Tom McMillen (NBA, Atlanta Hawks)- US House, Maryland

Ralph Metcalfe (Olympics)- US House, Illinois

Jack Mildren (NFL, Baltimore Colts)- Lt. Gov, Oklahoma

Wilmer Mizell (MLB, St. Louis Cardinals)- US House, Sub-Cabinet positions, North Carolina

Jon Runyan (NFL, Philadelphia Eagles)- US House, New Jersey  

Jim Ryun (Olympics)- US House, Kansas  

Heath Shuler (NFL, Washington Redskins)- US House, North Carolina

Mo Udall (NBA, Denver Nuggets)- US House, Arizona

Jesse Ventura (WWF)- Governor, Minnesota 

Date edited: 08/18/2016 (11:40AM)


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