MAY: Pros Enter Political Arena
The Front Runners

Kevin Johnson played for 12 years in the NBA as a point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns. He now serves as the mayor of Sacramento and has made the news for one of the wilder political incidents this year.

A man unhappy with Johnson’s work as mayor decided the best form of protest would be to hit the official in the face with a coconut cream pie. Unsurprisingly, the former NBA player did not take kindly to this, fighting back against the disgruntled protester. The protester ended up in the hospital before being shuffled off to jail.

The whole event has prompted plenty of reaction, as one may expect, considering just how bizarre it all seems. Johnson’s status as a three-time NBA All-Star means that sports media picked up the story too.

The story has two parts: first, the coconut cream pie and resulting fight and, second, the reminder that a well-known athlete is serving as a mayor of a major city. The pie will always be a bit crazy. But, political careers like Johnson’s happen surprisingly often.

Enough American professional sports figures have gone on to hold elected office to warrant a list on Wikipedia. The list includes 13 congressmen and three senators. Any review of athletes in politics, however, has to begin in Minneapolis.

Jesse Ventura spent 11 years as a heel in the American Wrestling Association and the World Wrestling Federation. In the carefully choreographed show that is professional wrestling, Ventura always played the villain.

Twelve years after his wrestling career ended, however, Ventura ran for governor of Minnesota as a third-party candidate. He won the race by presenting himself has an alternative to a pair of stale candidates from the traditional parties, a strategy that should feel familiar in 2016.

As a standard bearer for the Reform Party of Minnesota, Ventura served as governor from 1999 to 2003. In his time in office, he cut taxes, supported the legalization of medical marijuana, advocated for marriage equality and the end of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy preventing homosexuals from serving in the military.

Ventura’s stint as governor was a bizarre and hugely entertaining moment in American political history, befitting the man’s WWF background. He inspired satire from National Public Radio host Garrison Keillor, faced a petition for his recall within a year of taking office and once stated on national television that Saint Paul, Minn., must have been designed by drunken Irishmen.

While Minnesota was enjoying the show, the country was preparing to pick the next president. Before Al Gore had even heard of a “hanging chad”, he overcame a challenge in the Democratic primary from New Jersey senator Bill Bradley.

Bradley served three terms as a senator from 1979 to 1997. He took office just two years after finishing a successful decade with the New York Knicks as a shooting guard and small forward. He won two NBA titles, an All-Star selection and a Euroleague championship long before he took office in the United States Senate.

Whereas Ventura was always the showman, Bradley always appeared erudite and, to some, stuffy. One university study of the psychology of famous political figures stated that Bradley suffered from “a deficit of outgoing charisma, which can make him appear dour.”

Nevertheless, the Princeton graduate won reelection to his seat twice on the strength of specific policy knowledge and attempts to reform the tax code, a project befitting a man with a perceived “deficit of outgoing charisma.”

The list of politicians with backgrounds in sports goes on and on. Former Republican senator from Kentucky Jim Bunning stands as one of 23 pitchers in MLB history to have ever thrown a perfect game. Former Nebraska congressman Tom Osborne remains one of the most beloved figures in that state’s intense college football tradition. Dozens more cashed in on their fame to win elections across the country.

Most, with the exception of Johnson, have retired in the past 15 years. Perhaps the age of the athletic politician has passed. That may very well be true, but the more exciting possibility is that the country is on the verge of a second wave of sports stars in Congress. Judging from Ventura’s success, just about anyone could appear on the next ballot.

Peyton Manning always looked more like a third term congressman than a professional athlete. Colorado governor John Hickenlooper will hit his term limit in 2018, giving Manning the perfect window to capitalize on his time with the Denver Broncos.

Likewise, Derek Jeter has been far too quiet recently. The recently married captain of the New York Yankees has such a following in New York that the team gave him an extension despite declining performance and better available options. With that much popularity, surely Mr. November could win a November election, too.

As voters head to their polling places in just a few weeks, take a moment to wonder if the same old candidates may be more appealing with a championship ring or two hidden away on their resumes. If 2016 has taught any lesson, it is that just about anyone can win a presidential nomination.

sports_andrewmayAndrew May is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. The Front Runners is a shared column and appears every Tuesday.

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