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Last year, when Shane Battier was considering whether to leave college early for the NBA, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski suggested that staying in school would help him if he had to answer a question on education policy during a presidential debate. Coach K told him he would be able to say, “When I was 21, I had a chance to make $3 million in the NBA, but I decided my education was more valuable than that.”
Now, the Naismith College Player of the Year will have a chance to improve his national political profile as captain of the NCAA tourney favorite. Battier describes himself as “complex and pseudo-intellectual yet laid-back and simple,” which sounds a lot like another brainy All-American, who eventually went from the basketball floor to the floor of the Senate, Bill Bradley.
These days, many high-profile athletes are considering throwing their jocks—and sports bras—into the political ring. And kingmakers from both parties are putting on a full-court press to recruit them. It’s no wonder. Athletes bring bipartisan fan support and name recognition money can’t buy. And they have access to the cash—from both their own megabucks playing contracts and ready-made donor lists of courtside ticket holders—that makes politics go round.
The higher tax bracket probably has something to do with why so many current players-turned-politicos—like congressmen Steve Largent (a former Seahawks receiver) and J.C. Watts (an ex-University of Oklahoma quarterback) and Senator Jim Bunning (a Hall of Fame pitcher)—are Republican. As Charles Barkley pointed out when his grandmother asked why he had joined the party of the rich, “Grandma, we are rich.”
Yet there are also a number of jocks with political views a little more out of left field who might follow in Bradley’s size 13D footsteps, including such hometown stars as Mike Richter and John McEnroe.
Below, a roster of the top 20 current or recently retired athletes who would make the most viable candidates for political office.
In 1991, Anthony served as both the president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, College Republicans and the starting point guard of the school’s NCAA National Champion basketball team. Anthony says he is particularly interested in economic development and race-relations issues and counts both Jack Kemp and Bill Bradley as political role models. When President Clinton visited his locker room in Washington a few years ago, Anthony drew cheers from teammates by asking when the capital gains tax cut took effect. Now a backup point guard with the Trailblazers, Anthony is active in Portland-area charities. If he ran, however, it would likely be in New York, where he began his career with the Knicks.
Charles Barkley—Basketball (retired, 2000)
The nation’s most famous African American Republican this side of Colin Powell has been promising to run for governor of Alabama for years. A perennial member of the NBA’s All-Interview team, Barkley is currently a Turner Sports basketball analyst. In a future political campaign, he might have to explain away several incidents, including once throwing a fan through a window. Barkley also may have alienated a key demographic when he said he “hates white people,” though he’s married to one and supported Steve Forbes for president.
When he was three years old, Battier asked his mother, “Do you think I would make a good president?” It is a question that many believe might well be answered one day. An All-American center and A-minus religion major at Duke, Battier is fluent in German and an accomplished jazz trumpeter. The Michigan native was chosen last year to chair the Student Basketball Council, a new advisory committee made up of 48 men’s basketball players, formed to give student-athletes more of a voice in the NCAA’s governance of the game. Battier has been an outspoken advocate of providing college athletes with stipends and has testified twice in front of Congress on other sports issues. “If I didn’t play basketball, I’d hope the people would still gravitate toward me and listen to what I have to say,” he told USA Today, “because I think I’ve got some neat ideas.”
Casey has already been nicknamed “the Mayor” by Cincinnati Reds teammates and fans for his charisma, friendliness, and community involvement after only two years in the Major Leagues. “Sean is one of the most sincere guys I’ve ever met,” says veteran teammate Barry Larkin. The All-Star first baseman showed keen political instincts in a successful campaign for eighth-grade class president: “I ran against the most popular girl in school, and I was the fat kid. I passed out Tootsie Rolls to everyone. Actually they were Tootsie Roll wrappers, since I ate them all on the way to school. But I did win.”
The 2000 Olympic Swim Team captain won two silver relay medals in Sydney after capturing three golds in 1996. He would likely run in his hometown of San Antonio, where his grandfather and great-grandfather were local judges. A polished speaker, the 28-year-old Davis has made more than 100 inspirational speeches in the past year. Then-governor George W. Bush named Davis to a list of the 18 Greatest Texans in 1998. He has All-American looks—6-2 with blond hair and blue eyes—and is the father of three young children. An “outspoken, unapologetic Christian,” Davis advocates sexual abstinence until marriage and cites Steve Largent as role model.
Joetta Clark Diggs—Track & Field
A four-time Olympian, Diggs was one of three members of the same family to compete for the U.S. in the women’s 800-meter competition in Sydney. The 38-year-old Republican is now considering running for a local or state elective office. She is the daughter of Joe Clark, the notorious no-nonsense, bat-wielding former Paterson, New Jersey, high school principal. Diggs has worked as a state drug enforcement investigator and was appointed by former governor Christie Whitman to the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority. A frequent motivational speaker, Clark is also involved with charities that help mentally and physically impaired children.
John Elway—Football (retired, 2000)
Elway talked to Colorado Republican officials about running for Congress in 2000, but decided to pursue business opportunities—including a sporting-goods Internet venture with Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan (mvp.com, which is now kaput). He certainly has the right position for Denver voters—Broncos quarterback. The ruggedly handsome, All-American coach’s son is the most popular person in the state after a 16-year career that culminated in two Super Bowl victories. His endorsement contract with the Coors beer company might be a potential political liability in some places, but not in Colorado. Some are calling the new congressional seat that state will gain as a result of the 2000 census the “Elway seat.”
Foudy, the co-captain of America’s most popular and admired squad has been nicknamed “the President” by her fellow players on the U.S. National Soccer Team. The Stanford graduate has taken a leadership role both on and off the field. She helped organize the team’s successful job action last year for higher salaries and took a fact-finding trip to Pakistan to check child-labor conditions at factories before endorsing Reebok products. Foudy was the first woman to earn the coveted Fair Play award from FIFA, soccer’s governing body, and was selected to sit next to Hillary Clinton at the State of the Union address in 1999. The incoming president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, Foudy will play for the San Diego Spirit of the WUSA, the new women’s professional soccer league.
Kevin Johnson—Basketball (retired, 2000)
Both Republican and Democratic leaders, including President Clinton, have recruited Johnson, a moderate Democrat, to run for office. KJ is deeply involved in charitable activities in Phoenix, where he played for 11 years as the star guard for the NBA Suns, and in Sacramento, where he grew up. He has lent public support to an Arizona ballot initiative that would raise the sales tax for education funding. A political science major at Cal-Berkeley, Johnson told The Washington Post he is undecided on whether to enter electoral politics: “I need to make sure you can do more inside the process than outside.”
Brent Jones—Football (retired, 1998)
One of Steve Young’s favorite receivers—and his roommate on the road for 10 years—the 49ers tight end was recruited by Republican leaders to run for Congress in the East Bay in 1998. But Jones, who has two small kids, decided against it. “You’re young, (37),” Steve Largent told him. “You can always do this later.” Now a CBS color commentator and partner, with Young, in a venture capital fund, Jones is involved in a number of faith-based charitable activities.
Michael Jordan—Basketball (retired, 1999)
Jordan is the most popular athlete—and perhaps, person—of his generation. He declined to publicly support North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Harvey Gantt against Jesse Helms in 1990, noting, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” But he took a high profile in support of Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign, even starring in a TV ad. Also, he’s gaining some presidential experience in Washington with the NBA’s Wizards. Asked by Tim Russert on Meet the Press about a possible run for office, he said: “You never know. I can never say never. I’ve learned not to do that. Politically, I’ve never really considered it, but you never know when I’m fiftysomething years old.”
Nancy Lieberman-Cline—Basketball (retired, 1998)
The outgoing president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, Lieberman-Cline has been a gregarious spokesperson for women’s sports over the past two decades and has been a regular presence on Capitol Hill. She made a remarkable comeback in competitive basketball at age 39 during the WNBA’s first season, then became the coach and general manager of the Detroit Shock. She’s a moderate Republican who is friendly with George W. Bush, but campaigned last year on behalf of Bill Bradley. Ultimately, if she ran, Lieberman-Cline might have to explain a couple of other striking conversions (the ex-Jew is now Christian and a member of the evangelical Athletes in Action; a once-out lesbian, she’s currently married to a man).
Nick Lowery—Football (retired, 1999)
The son of a career State Department and CIA official, Lowery grew up in Washington, D.C., and served as a Capitol Hill aide after graduating from Dartmouth. He has worked for three presidential administrations on national-service issues. The All-Pro place-kicker was one of the leading scorers in NFL history and among the league’s most community-oriented players. In Kansas City, where he played for 14 years, Lowery launched the Kick With Nick campaign for cerebral palsy, the longest-running player fundraising project in NFL history. He also created NativeVISION, an empowerment, sports, education, and training project for Native American youth. Lowery is currently studying for a Master’s in Public Administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government
John McEnroe—Tennis (retired, 1992)
Big Mac told The New Yorker he would “like to try politics someday. Maybe starting with the job of Tennis Commissioner.” McEnroe would have to overcome a bad-boy image and controversial statements. His outspoken criticism of women’s tennis might also create a gender gap. “John is the most undiplomatic person you’ll ever meet,” says his wife, singer Patty Smyth. Still, his tours of duty in the patriotic role of Davis Cup team captain have helped him craft an elder-statesman image. But there are signs of limitations on just how much McEnroe can change: He is still quite cantankerous on the court as a popular member of the men’s Seniors tour.
John Register—Paralympic Track & Field
A silver medalist in the long jump at the Sydney Paralympics, Register also finished fifth in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints. After an All-American career at the University of Arkansas, Register joined the army and served in the Gulf War. While training for the 1996 Olympic trials, he suffered a freak injury requiring an above-the-knee amputation of his right leg. The 35-year-old is a member of the International Paralympic Committee and currently works with the army’s Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers retention program in Alexandria, Virginia. He is considering returning to Arkansas at some point and getting involved in politics.
A Democrat who is strong on defense, Richter is one of the city’s most popular athletes; as the starting goalie, he led the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup in over 50 years. Knowledgeable, but not outspoken on public policy issues (“Does anyone want to hear the political views of an athlete?”), Richter says he will “definitely consider running for office even if it’s for the school board” after retirement. With teammates from five different nations, Richter has already displayed international-relations skills. He’s also an admitted “schmoozer” who is known to leave weddings last. “I’m not sure if it’s good or bad, but people tell me I have the personality of a politician.”
Cal Ripken Jr.—Baseball
Few athletes are as popular in their communities as Ripken is in the Baltimore area. He has been active in local charitable affairs and is building a $25 million baseball stadium for youth leagues. His “Iron-Man” streak of 2632 consecutive games played made him a national icon. Ripken would be an imposing candidate, and has expressed some interest in throwing his cap into the ring: “There’s something about (politics) that fascinates me a bit,” Ripken told Roll Call. He also noted that he has been watching C-SPAN more often.
Pam Shriver—Tennis (retired, 1997)
Shriver, the daughter of a Maryland judge, first became involved in Republican politics as a teenager after meeting President Reagan at the White House. She is an occasional tennis partner of former president George Bush and spoke briefly at the 1992 Republican National Convention. An early organizer of the Women’s Tennis Association, Shriver is now a United States Tennis Association board member. Her popular Baltimore charity tennis event is in its 15th year and has raised $2.7 million for local children’s groups. She has no immediate plans to run for anything, but would be a formidable candidate in Maryland if she chose to.
Quickly becoming one of the world’s most admired sportsmen, Woods is a political consultant’s dream candidate: intelligent, articulate, with a big personal financial war chest and roots in electorally rich Florida and California. “He’s from four different ethnic groups, and he gets the corporate vote because he golfs, which is the unofficial religion of America,” observes CNN’s Jeff Greenfield. Woods may have lost some union votes by filming a Buick ad during the Screen Actors Guild strike. He has no political plans at present, which is OK because he only just recently passed the minimum age to serve in Congress (25).
Steve Young—Football (retired, 2000)
Young turned down entreaties from Republican leaders to run for Congress in Utah last year. His agent, Leigh Steinberg, says Young, a new father, will probably wait some time before entering politics. Young would probably run in California—likely for Senate or governor—where he played for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and USFL’s Los Angeles Express. Handsome and articulate, the three-time Super Bowl quarterback trained as a lawyer and is now involved in venture capital and TV broadcasting. Young and former favorite target Brent Jones could be the first pro teammates to serve in Congress. Young throws left but would vote right; he is a moderate Republican who spoke at the national convention in Philadelphia. Jay Leno suggested another option: “He suffered four concussions over the past year, and the doctors said that with one more he could be a Reform Party candidate.”