On Saturday night, Manny Pacquiao beat Timothy Bradley by unanimous decision, and has since announced his official retirement from boxing. The Filipino fighter is an incumbent member of his country’s lower house of representatives and is running for a senate seat in May. The Philippines’ government is dominated by celebrities, Pacquiao has a very good chance of winning despite alienating some of his voters with a recent comment in which, according to The Guardian, he called homosexual people “worse than animals.” He later apologized, but stood by his belief that same-sex marriage should be banned. His athletic feat on Saturday, however, possibly earned him back some voters, since it undoubtedly boosted national pride and esteem.
According to the Philippines Inquirer, Pacquiao’s rival, Walden Bello, complained about the fact that his nationally televised fight would take place in the middle of campaign season. He cited that it would violate election rules and give the fighter an unfair advantage in the race. However, due to the technicality that the complaint was not formally filed and occurred before the fight, the poll body could not stop it. Pacquiao’s counsel also defended the move by claiming that the fight would last a maximum of 36 minutes. Since each candidate is allowed 120 minutes of television time, the fight falls well within these time constraints.
Pacquiao is just one of many athletes who have used their sporting careers to gain political leverage. Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the most famous examples of a former athlete who found incredible political success after athletics. A former Mr. Universe and seven-time Mr. Olympia, Schwarzenegger won the 2003 race for California governor on a Republican platform by a landslide. He was re-elected in 2006, but his approval ratings were in the 20s by the time he left office in 2011. Although he was the first governor to pass a greenhouse emissions cap of any kind within the United States, his visibility as a celebrity and an athlete undoubtedly augmented his ability to earn the seat that might have otherwise gone to a more politically experienced candidate.
There are a variety of athletes in the United States and worldwide who have used their celebrity status to garner political power. Because they often already have the visibility that comes with a successful athletic career, they are more capable of gaining support for platforms with which the public may otherwise not agree. Although I am aware that the Philippines is relatively conservative in terms of LGBTQ rights, I would warrant a guess that if any other politician made inflammatory, anti-homosexual comments like those of Pacquiao, he would have received an incredible amount of backlash. Granted, Nike dropped its support of the fighter soon after his comment, but it seems that Pacquiao is still able to keep the political momentum needed to win a very high-powered position in his country’s national government.
Why are athletes granted such a high level of immunity from scrutiny? As suggested in Clarissa Batinori’s Bloomberg article published April 10, the Filipino’s skill and success as a boxer perhaps surpass some people’s hesitancy to support someone with a clear homophobic stance. Schwarzenegger also accomplished a very impressive set of goals as a bodybuilder, as well as some acting credits, and that inevitably contributed to his successful campaign as governor. Name recognition is incredibly important in the political game, and athletes are not the only ones who benefit from it. Donald Trump’s current campaign for the presidency epitomizes how a person with virtually no political experience has the ability to gain an incredible amount of popularity because of his success in other fields.
The issue with this sort of system is that people who are elected for office often do not deserve or know how to perform in the position. There are, of course, some exceptions, but the popularity and immunity gained from athletic accomplishments often blind us to their faults as politicians. We must be careful to avoid letting a person’s former feats in other fields stand in for political experience. Otherwise, we risk electing leaders who do not know how to handle the responsibilities entrusted to them.
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