Amending the Playbook

Why some athletes aim towards futures in the public sector. 

She sprints in from behind the pack. No one expected her to overtake the heavy favorite, a powerhouse with millions of supporters and years of experience. As soon as she passes by, she is the new it. Some call her a cheater, a scoundrel, a fluke. Others call her a prodigy, a genius, a winner. Many call her a dark horse. But who is she? She could be an athlete — perhaps a sprinter who just won a race or a ball club that upset a heavy favorite in the standings. But she could also be a politician, upsetting the incumbent or leader in the polls, en route to a position such as Senator, Representative, or even President. The worlds of sports and politics, while dealing with completely different matters, are intertwined with similar vocabulary: the dark horse candidate, stepping up to the plate on an issue, running the country like a marathon rather than a race, and so on. From this relationship — for good or for bad — we have seen the reign of athletes in politics.

In a recent interview by Rich Cimini of ESPN New York, quarterbacking evangelist Tim Tebow addressed the idea of a political career after he retires from the NFL: “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.” With this simple statement in mind, the names of many other athletes jump to the forefront of one’s mind: Kevin Johnson, Bill Bradley, Steve Largent, Gerald Ford, and on and on. But a question resonates within my mind: Why? Why would someone like Tim Tebow, who last year was voted the most popular athlete in the United States, want to attempt a life as a politician? Athletes receive praise from the American people who idolize their jerseys and dream of their abilities. Meanwhile, a 2011 Gallup poll showed that sixty-three percent of Americans view the Federal Government in a negative light. So why have we seen great college and professional athletes pursue careers in politics?

Life is full of gray areas. But in sports, there is a final score or a finish line. In politics, there is a final result on Election Day. One profession passes touchdowns and locks down on defense while the other passes legislation and provides for our common defense. Although the goals of each are clearly different, there are striking similarities that provide a lens into why politics might be such an appetizing career for athletes.

Over the years, Harvard has produced three widely known athletes turned politicians: brothers John F. Kennedy and Edward “Ted” Kennedy, as well as Teddy Roosevelt. The Kennedys were both solid football players for the Crimson. Coach Henry Lamar called John “the most adept pass catcher” on the team and the Green Bay Packers offered Ted a try out, although he declined in favor of law school. Teddy Roosevelt, meanwhile, was never a varsity athlete at Harvard, although he was a highly respected boxer at the club level. Regardless, these three prominent politicians entered Harvard as athletes and left as future world leaders.

Beyond Harvard, many famous athletes have pursued political careers. Bill Bradley has been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, has won two NBA championships and Olympic Gold, and also served three terms as a US Senator from New Jersey. Jack Kemp was a college football star at Occidental, as well as a solid player in the CFL for years before serving in the elder President Bush’s cabinet, as well as the House for eighteen years. Judy Martz participated in the 1964 Winter Olympics before serving a term as Montana’s Governor. Recently, Manny Pacquiao, considered one of the best boxers of this generation, became a Representative in the Philippine’s House. The truth is, sports and politics have had a strong connection for years. In fact, eight United States Presidents also have a history as varsity college athletes. Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and the aforementioned Kennedy all played football in college, while Wilson, Carter, and George H.W. Bush all played baseball. Indeed, President Obama even made national news for putting a basketball court in the White House early in his presidency.

The list goes on, but the question remains: Why is there this entanglement? The similar concepts of winners and losers offer one explanation. When an athlete retires, he or she is most likely prone to pursuing a career that mirrors his or her first love. Athletes know how to win…or at least they enjoy it. Therefore it would be only natural for one to pursue a career path where winning means everything. Also, as faces for a college team or professional franchise, these men and women are recognizable to the average American. Athletes are popular role models for children and those who succeed are respected for their achievements. This status boosts their ability to appeal to the American people and ask for their vote.

But if winning is the reason and national fame is the catalyst to success, still I ask, why politics? Why would athletes place themselves in the middle of a partisan battleground, where no matter how much they try to help the country, millions of Americans will still despise their name? The question cannot be definitively answered, though the answer may be found in an attempt to make a difference, as Tim Tebow aims to do. Athletes have the mentality to make a difference. They want to score the game-winner, to change history in their own way. The public realm is the most direct way to achieve such a goal. By passing a law or initiating a movement, athletes find a way to keep their competitive nature while also personally affecting an outcome. In this solace, these men and women have found a way to never move past their first love. When an athlete begins to age and can no longer run certain plays, he needs to amend his playing style into one suitable for his current state. With a change in playing style comes a change in the playbook.

Eventually, the player will no longer be able to adapt to the game and must move on completely. Many athletes have found their new playbook and arena — it just comes in the shape of one thousand page bills and big white houses.

Sean Frazzette ’16 (sfrazzette@college) thinks Tebow should stick to the turf before hitting the hill.