Athletes sidestep political stances

The Baltimore Sun

It has become a cliche.

Every election season, Hollywood stars throw themselves and their money behind political candidates and causes. They're generally a great fundraising source for Democrats and a fun punching bag for Republicans.

But what of athletes? They're as rich and famous as those who appear in movies and on television. But they haven't established a mass political identity.

"If they fit a given race, you'll see them," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's center for politics. "But it's fair to say that as classes of celebrities go, they're less politically identified and less politically interested. I've taught some football players, and I wouldn't say they got up in the morning thinking about politics."

Neither do any of Maryland's leading players and coaches, according to federal campaign contribution records. The biggest names -- from Ray Lewis to Cal Ripken to Gary Williams -- have stayed out of this year's high-profile Senate and gubernatorial races here. The owners of local teams have made donations, and boxing promoter Don King has appeared on behalf of Republican Senate candidate Michael S. Steele. But that's about it. Current Ravens and Orioles players have kept their distance from politics.

Ripken's spokesman, John Maroon, said the Orioles legend has been approached for help by several candidates over the years. But he feels uncomfortable wielding his influence in an area where he's no authority.

"Generally, Cal's philosophy is that he's a citizen, but a baseball player and a businessman who's not an expert on all things political," Maroon said. "He doesn't feel he's any more qualified than anyone else to say if a candidate is good or not. So he keeps his political beliefs very private, and that is by design."

More politically oriented former players, such as NFL great Jim Brown, have chided Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods for not speaking out on behalf of causes and candidates.

Jordan once summed up his neutrality by saying, "Republicans buy sneakers, too."

But the former NBA great has become a donor in recent years. Perhaps recognizing a fellow star, he gave Democrat Barack Obama $10,000 during his successful Illinois Senate run in 2004.

Since Washington is the ultimate political town, perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Redskins give more than Ravens.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti gave $10,000 to the Republican National Committee in September, according to federal election records.

His Washington counterpart, Daniel Snyder, has given $44,200 to Republican organizers and candidates. Coach Joe Gibbs has given $6,200 to various Republicans, and quarterback Mark Brunell also has backed GOP candidates. Brunell and Snyder have contributed to Virginia Sen. George Allen's 2006 re-election campaign.

Owners are the most generous political donors in sports. Despite his wealth, Snyder is a relative lightweight in this respect.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos and his wife, Georgia, have given to many Democratic candidates over the years. Angelos has donated as much as $500,000 at once and more than $3 million overall to the Democratic National Committee and other party organizations.

But he made news last year when he held "Bob Ehrlich Day" at Camden Yards and posted huge banners reading "Thank You! Governor Ehrlich" on the warehouse. Despite that show of support, he had not fattened Ehrlich's campaign coffers as of the latest campaign filings.

Former Ravens owner Art Modell has donated $174,800, mostly to Republicans, over the years. This year in Maryland, he has given $4,200 to Democratic congressman C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger and $2,100 to Republican Steele.

Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin is a longtime Democratic backer who has given about $14,000 to Benjamin L. Cardin's Senate campaign.

Baltimore Blast owner Ed Hale has given $4,200 each to Cardin and Ruppersberger.

Local owners are dwarfed by the contributions of owners in other cities.

New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner has given $222,000, about 49 percent of that to Democrats, 27 percent to Republicans and the rest to various political causes. His Chicago White Sox counterpart, Jerry Reinsdorf, has spent more conservatively on baseball but less so on politics, distributing $362,203 to Democratic candidates (52 percent) and Republicans (32 percent.)

All three commissioners of the major sports are substantial donors. NBA chief David Stern is the leviathan of the bunch, having given $829,060, almost all of it to Democrats. Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue might have led a more profitable league but donated modestly by comparison, giving $27,751 (44 percent to Republicans, 29 percent to Democrats).

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has given $63,250, mostly to Democratic candidates. Ironically, Selig represented management (usually associated with Republicans) in baseball's labor wars. His chief foe, union chief Donald Fehr, has distributed 46 percent of his $19,756 in donations to GOP candidates.

And that loudest of loud voices, boxing promoter King? He's one of the sporting world's leading donors, having dropped $229,500 on myriad candidates. He gives much more to Republicans (69 percent) but will back a Democrat (20 percent).

'Too political'

Longtime NFL agent Leigh Steinberg tries to combat political apathy among his clients. Steinberg is a generous donor to Democratic candidates and causes (he has given $166,250 over the years, and 17 U.S. senators attended his Super Bowl party this year). He said sports figures have enormous power to influence elections or votes on a given issue, and he finds it frustrating they don't get involved more often.

"By their bent, they're fundamentally apolitical," he said. "Their tremendous self-discipline and dedication often narrows their focus and pulls it away from the broader issues of the world."

Steinberg said many of his colleagues encourage this detachment: "The enemies to this kind of involvement are agents, who say: 'Don't risk anything. You've got 100 percent name recognition. People have hardened positions on issues like gun control, so don't risk that share of the market by being too political.'"

"But I think that's a cop-out," Steinberg said. "For someone living in this time to not take a stand if he has the profile is almost irresponsible."

So Steinberg has taken Denver Broncos lineman Kenard Lang to an event promoting the eradication of land mines and introduced retired lineman Russell Maryland to Eduard Shevardnadze, the then-president of Georgia and a former Soviet official.

"All you have to do is tee it up for them, and they'll respond," he said.

Some athletes are exceptions to the apolitical majority, according to federal campaign contribution data compiled by the political Web site newsmeat.com.

Recently retired tennis star Andre Agassi has donated $96,200 since 1998, about 90 percent of it to Democratic candidates. Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning has donated $25,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this year.

Peyton Manning and Alex Rodriguez gave $2,000 apiece to George W. Bush's 2004 re-election effort. Former Oriole Rafael Palmeiro gave $4,000 to Bush, who once paid his salary as owner of the Texas Rangers.

Orioles minority owner and former tennis star Pam Shriver has donated $21,300 to Democrats and $9,800 to Republicans since 1986.

Easy candidacy

Though they might not make big contributions to politics during their playing days, athletes often make easy transitions to candidacy because of their popularity. Former NFL quarterback Jack Kemp was a GOP vice presidential candidate in 1996. Former NBA star Bill Bradley ran for president as a Democrat in 2000. Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning is a Republican U.S. senator. Hockey great Ken Dryden serves on the Canadian prime minister's cabinet.

This year, former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann is running for governor as a Republican in Pennsylvania and former Redskins quarterback Heath Shuler is running for Congress as a Democrat in North Carolina.

Former teammates, such as Mel Blount and Jack Ham have backed Swann. Others, such as Franco Harris and L.C. Greenwood, seem to be sticking with incumbent Ed Rendell. Shuler and Allen, whose father coached the Redskins, also have campaigned with sports figures.

"But these guys are campaigning as friends," said Sabato, the Virginia professor. "They don't care about the party or the issues."

He said athletes and other celebrities afford one major advantage to candidates.

"They don't get votes, but they attract media," Sabato said. "And then the candidate gets free air time."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

In an article yesterday about political campaign contributions among local sports figures, two contributions by University of Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams were omitted. He gave $100 in 2003 and $500 in 2005 to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR
Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
74°