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Elections Tue Nov 02 2010

Sports Dollars in Politics

This article was submitted by Andrew Kachel

"Money is the mother's milk of politics." -Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh

Back when Mike Ditka half-assedly ran for the US Senate then immediately backed out, he had this to say: "Five, six years ago I would have jumped on it and would have ran with it, and I know this, that I would make a good senator, because I would be for the people." Ditka said this at an impromptu news conference in front of Mike Ditka's Steakhouse on the near North Side.

Over the last two decades, American athletes and coaches as a group have been eerily quiet with their political opinions. Gilbert Arenas famously noted in the last presidential election that he wasn't voting -- both candidates were going to tax his enormous salary. When asked why he didn't back civil rights champion Harvey Gantt in the North Carolina Senate race, Michael Jordan shrewdly replied, "Republicans buy sneakers, too."

There's more than a little pressure from owners and management for athletes to conduct themselves as apolitical entities. PR coaches know this from the moment players step into their offices and ingratiate it into their psyches. Pro athletes aren't even supposed to criticize officiating (fines are inevitable when they do), so their ideas on the direction of foreign and domestic policy ride the third rail. Reporters don't ask and players don't tell.

moneyball.jpgWhile Barack Obama's campaign altered this somewhat (even whackjob Phil Spector donned an Obama pin during his damning murder trial), the days of Cassius Clay throwing his Olympic medals in the river, or more notably, serving actual prison time in protest against the Vietnam War are long gone. We'll never see that again. Tommie Smith raising the black fist on the medal pedestal at the 1968 Mexico City Games? Not in today's culture of endorsements. We know Michael Phelps lost a bit of scratch thanks to a South Carolina bong rip, but can you imagine him voluntarily sacrificing anything?

At best, we get the crackpots like John Rocker, and even the most reactionary candidate wouldn't go looking for his endorsement. Well, perhaps Scott Lee Cohen would, if only in displaying a gesture of anabolic solidarity.

Yet a few pros slip between the cracks. There's a small club of obvious outspoken players on both sides of the spectrum. Former NBA and NFL players Bill Bradley and Jack Kemp both served in Congress and eventually ran for higher offices. Curt Schilling has used his blog to promote the Iraq war and extol the virtues of man plus woman marriage, as well as appearing along the campaign trail with John McCain. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf* effectively killed his NBA career by refusing to stand for the National Anthem. Charles Barkley once considered running for Governor of Alabama on the GOP ticket, then, apparently fed up, pulled an about face by turning Democrat during Obama's run. Steve Nash wore a t-shirt to the 2005 NBA All-Star Game reading "No War: Shoot For Peace." Karl Malone, well, Karl Malone has given more money (and said more crazy things) in support of Republican candidates than any other NBA player I looked at. He also considered running for governor -- Arkansas this time -- as a Republican.

So how do pro athletes and coaches voice their political opinions? Voting, hopefully. But, like most well-to-do Americans, they invariably use their strongest weapon: money.

With a little help from political contribution aggregators and, we've compiled a list of athletes and coaches who have opened their checkbooks in ways that may surprise you.

Let's start with the Chicago all-stars:

Mike Ditka
98% to Republican Candidates
2% to Special Interests

Ditka's given to the RNC, the RNSC, and a number of candidates that fall under their jurisdiction: Jack Kemp, Rudy Giuliani, George W. Bush, John McCain and others. (You would be amazed how many people from Ditka's era in the NFL donated money to Jack Kemp. It's startling.)

Michael Jordan
78% to Democratic Candidates
22% to Special Interests

Contrary to popular belief and the earlier anecdote, Jordan did act politically, albeit quietly. He gave the aforementioned Gantt two maximum donations in 1996, as well as $6K to Bill Bradley and $14,400 to Barack Obama (senatorial and presidential races).

Julius Peppers
65% to Democratic Candidates
35% to Special Interests

The shining star of the Bears off-season smash and grab has given notably to GK Butterfield of North Carolina, but also Kevin Powell of New York. He also gave $2,400 to the ActBlue Pac. Light blue or navy blue, Jules?

The best of the (non-Chicago) rest:

Andre Agassi
"The Head and The Hair," as I like to call him, has donated a whopping $186,500, 95% of which went to Democratic candidates (5% to special interests) including Al Gore, Jumpin' Joe Lieberman, and most recently Nevada's 3rd district house incumbent Dina Titus. This is a lesson for meth users everywhere: at least save some of your money.

Roger Staubach
OK, this one's not entirely surprising. The Naval Academy star, Vietnam naval veteran, and Cowboy Hall of Famer has donated an impressive $161,712 in total, 91% of which went to Republican candidates like John McCain (for whom he also campaigned), both Bush presidents, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and a lot more. He did once reach across the aisle, giving $1,000 to Democrat Dan Boren in a 2004 primary.

Alonzo Mourning
Mourning didn't get too active in the donor game until a little later in his career, but when he did, he exploded. He's given $65,400 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and another $8,100 directly to Democratic candidates, including both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (but a lot more for Obama).

John Elway
John Elway's political contributions say one thing: John Elway is a conservative. Of the $46,300 he's given, all of it went to Republican candidates or a Republican committee. It's worth noting that Elway's chosen candidates tended to lose, notably Bob Schaffer and Rick O'Donnell, both of Colorado and both backed heavily by Elway. Maybe, mirroring his own time behind center, Elway's successes will come late in his campaign contribution career.

Rodney Peete
Rodney Peete? Yes, that Rodney Peete! The USC stud, NFL journeyman (he backed up Andre Ware!), and husband of Holly Robinson from "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper" has given $6,500 to Hillary Clinton and an impressive $30,400 to the Democratic National Committee -- especially impressive since he's, you know, Rodney Peete.

Richard Petty
Seven-time NASCAR Champion Richard Petty ran for North Carolina Secretary of State as a Republican and lost. Afterward, he stated, "If I had known I wasn't going to win, I wouldn't have run," which is one of the dumbest and best quotes on politics ever; it's like a Churchill-Jughead hybrid. He's also been actively contributing to GOP candidates. How actively? $23,950 actively. Even more surprising, his favored candidate seems to be Elizabeth Dole, followed by Jesse Helms -- that's a hindsight 2000 GOP ticket right there!

LeBron James
Two years before taking his talents to South Beach, King James took his talents, er, money to DC: $20,000 to the Democratic White House Victory Fund PAC to be exact. Hardly a political animal, James was one of several athletes brought into the fold during Barack Obama's campaign. Of course, LeBron probably spent more than $20,000 on the party celebrating said $20,000 donation.

Jack Nicklaus
Holding onto his G.G.O.A.T. (Greatest Golfer Of All Time) status, now more than ever, Nicklaus has been giving to the Republican National Committee for quite some time, as well as scattered GOP candidates to the tune of $12,475. Of course, these donations are utterly dwarfed by the amount of time and money (millions upon millions) the Golden Bear's given to benefit children's health care and veterans' causes.

Dennis Green
Another unexpected gem, Coach Green hasn't been a slouch in the political money game: he's given $5,800 to the Democratic National Committee, as well as another $4,750 to Democratic candidates -- all losers save Obama. A talented humorist once told me, "When the joke writes itself, don't write it."

Troy Aikman
"Don't Mess with Texas" was originally a slogan aimed at curbing the littering problem in the Lone Star State, but of course Texans couldn't help but repeat it ad infinitum until everyone just said, "Fine, we won't." Troy Aikman won't be messed with either: since 1999, he's was steadily donating to George W. Bush, including The 2004 President's Dinner Committee. In total he's given $10,300 -- $1,000 of which, I repeat, went to The 2004 President's Dinner Committee.

Vlade Divac
In a move that screams, "Oh man, did I do that after I got home from the club last night," the big Serb made a one-time donation of $10,000 to the Democratic National Committee in 2000, shortly after signing with the Kings. Divac notoriously spent millions attempting to acquire a Serbian soft drink company, as well as a high-circulation newspaper, both of which went into the toilet. So, that DNC thing was a near-win for him, right?

Al Leiter
Much like he did on the mound, when it comes to GOP contributions, Al Leiter likes to spread it around. Since 2003, he put $7,000 in donations behind six different candidates: Jim Bunning, George F. Allen, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Christopher Myers, and the aforementioned athlete money hawk, Colorado's Bob Schaffer. He also gave $1,000 to the Republican National Committee, giving them the metaphorical fielder's choice.

George Karl
Apparently, George Karl takes the AT&T approach to political donations: of the $9,900 he's given, 56% has gone to Democrats like John Edwards and John Kerry, while 44% has been doled out to Republicans I've never heard of like Corey Hoze of Wisconsin and James Renacci of Ohio. That's the kind of freewheeling attitude you would expect from a coach who doesn't bother with underwear.

Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning has never had a great nickname, which is weird. The guy has been among the most dominant quarterbacks forever and we have nothing. I heretofore suggest one: "Righty." Obviously, you see where this is going. Manning has given to George W. Bush and Fred Thompson (The Hunt for Red October, Aces: Iron Eagle III), but his real man in Washington is Tennessee Senator Bob Corker. Manning has given the flat tax advocate $5,200 of his total $9,500 in contributions.

Those are some notables. We'll now provide you with a rundown of a few others. These aren't comprehensive -- nor complete tallies of their donations in entirety -- just a look at some sizable contributions from some curious sources. The parentheses notate party affiliation and the state in which they were running, not wins or losses.

Mario Andretti (a fan of Republican senators, apparently)
$2,700 to the Republican National Committee
$26,340 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee
$4,175 to the National Republican Congressianl Committee

Bernie Kosar
$25,000 to George Voinovich's (R-OH) PAC

Isiah Thomas
$10,000 to Barack Obama's (D) PAC

Emmitt Smith
$3,000 to Ron Kirk (D-TX)
$2,400 to Harry Reid (D-NV)
$2,300 to Barack Obama (D-POTUS)

Chris Berman
$7,249 to Joe Lieberman (D-CT and POTUS)

John McEnroe ("Andy Roddick? Let me host SNL already!")
$4,600 to Al Franken (D-MN)
$2,000 to Franken Recount Fund

Fran Tarkenton
$6,300 to Tom Cole (R-OK)

Phil Garner
$6,100 to Ted Poe (R-TX)

Cris Collinsworth
$5,000 to the Republican Party of Kentucky

Lute Olsen (NCAA, I know)
$4,600 to Elizabeth Dole (R-NC)

Norv Turner
$4,600 to John McCain (R-POTUS)

Keith Hernandez
$2,500 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee
$2,000 to Rudy Giuliani (R-NY and POTUS)
$2,000 to Rick Lazio (R-NY)

Phil Jackson
$4,455 to Bill Bradley (D-POTUS) and Bradley's PAC

Jim Lampley (not an athlete or coach, but still interesting)
$4,100 to Barack Obama (D-POTUS)

Ron Jaworski
$2,000 to George W. Bush (R-POTUS)
$2,000 to Robert Andrews (D-NJ)

Lou Piniella
$2,000 to Dennis Mehiel (D-NY)
$2,000 to George W. Bush (R-POTUS)

Muhammed Ali
$1,000 to Van Darrel Hipp (R-SC)
$1,000 to Jack Conway (D-KY)
$1,000 to Anne Northup (R-KY)
Interestingly, Conway and Northup were running against each other.

Joe Gibbs
$3,000 to James Wright (R-TX)

Mario Lemieux
$2,300 to Hillary Clinton (D-POTUS)
$500 to Rick Santorum (R-PA)

George Brett
$2,300 to Mitt Romney (R-POTUS)

Andy Reid
$2,300 to Mitt Romney (R-POTUS)

Ric Flair
$2,000 to George W. Bush (R-POTUS)

Barry Switzer
$2,000 to Bill Richardson (D-POTUS)

Bobby Knight
$2,000 to George W. Bush (R-POTUS)

Gregg Popovich

$2,000 to John Edwards (D-POTUS)

Bill Belichick
$1,000 to Bernadine Healy (R-OH)

Oscar De La Hoya
$1,000 to James Casso (D-CA)

John Daly

$1,000 to Lu Haley (D-AZ)

Interesting, no? There's a glaring pattern emerging, though. Almost all of these donors are white, or retired and white. Then again, who loves giving money to politicians more than any combination of the retired, white and wealthy American population? It's the second-favorite demographic among fundraisers.

Which brings us to their favorite demo: the ultra-wealthy (and hopefully still working) population. The vapors of hypocrisy float like mustard gas around this matter. While owners and upper-level management try their best to suppress their employees' political opinions, they themselves are some of the fiercest political actors in the country. Legacy ownerships aside (and I'd include those, considering even the lowliest team is worth a mint), one doesn't acquire an American professional sports franchise without already living among the elite captains of finance, industry, and even politics. Lest we forget, President George W. Bush was a co-owner in the Texas Rangers organization and US Senator Herb Kohl has owned the Milwaukee Bucks since 1985.

They hardly make strange bedfellows, and of course, it stands to reason perfectly. Major League Baseball enjoys anti-trust exemption status (and the NFL tried like the devil to get the same, only to be struck down by the Supreme Court), a status given out less frequently than the Congressional Medal of Honor. Allocated taxpayer money funds the majority of capital for new ballparks, arenas, and stadiums, which is sort of insane; it's like asking taxpayers to subsidize Hollywood film sets so Americans can finally enjoy movies. And naturally, if you're an owner, you're likely already a millionaire-going-on-billionaire: if you're not donating early and often, you're lagging behind.

Again, let's begin with Chicago all-stars:

Jerry Reinsdorf (Owner - Chicago White Sox, Chicago Bulls)
52% to Democratic Candidates
29% to Republican Candidates
19% to Special Interests

Jerry shelled it out, again and again. Name a state and he's probably spent money on one of their candidates: Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Nevada, North Dakota, Arizona, Connecticut, and more. He's given to Dick Durbin, Carol Braun Mosley, Dennis Hastert, Arlen Specter, Chris Dodd, Evan Bayh, and even George W. Bush. If only he would throw it around like this with the Sox.

Tom Ricketts (Owner - Chicago Cubs)
100% to Republican Candidates

Tom Ricketts loves John McCain. He loves him to the tune of the monster $50,000 he
gave to him in his 2008 presidential run. Of course, he also loves his brother, Pete
Ricketts, whom he gave max donations to in 2005. Pete lost that Nebraska Senate race
despite putting forth $11M of his own money, which should become the new haunting
curse for Cubs fans.

Virginia Halas McCaskey (Owner - Bears)
53% to Special Interests
47% to Republican Candidates

Dusty old Bears owner Virginia Halas McCaskey has given money to some real surprises: $2k to Pat Buchanan when he was running on the Reform Party ticket ("All the peasants are coming with pitchforks" being his notable line from that season), but also Al Salvi, Andy McKenna, and Alan Keyes, all of whom lost.

Here are a few others that stand out noticeably:

Alex Spanos (Owner - San Diego Chargers)
25% to Republican Candidates
1% to Democratic Candidates
74% to Special Interests (mostly the Republican National State Elections Committee)

David Stern (Commissioner - National Basketball Association)
97% to Democratic Candidates (he really spread it around; even Dukakis)
3% to Special Interests

John Henry (Co-Owner - Boston Red Sox)
$1, 105,750
99% to Democratic Candidates
1% to Special Interests

James Dolan (Owner - New York Knicks, New York Rangers, New York Liberty)
74% to Democratic Candidates
2% to Republican Candidates
24% to Special Interests

Roger Penske (Owner - Penske Racing Team)
84% to Republican Candidates
5% to Democratic Candidates
11% to Special Interests

Robert Kraft (Owner - New England Patriots)
72% to Democratic Candidates
15% to Republican Candidates
13% to Special Interests

Don King (Promoter - Boxing)
69% to Republican Candidates
21% to Democratic Candidates
10% to Special Interests

George Steinbrenner (Owner - New York Yankees)
51% to Democratic Candidates
28% to Republican Candidates
21% to Special Interests

Art Modell (Owner - Baltimore Ravens, formerly Cleveland Browns)
75% to Republican Candidates
20% to Democratic Candidates
5% to Special Interests

UPDATE: Edited to correct Shareef Abdur-Raheem to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.

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chris jackson / November 2, 2010 12:30 PM

You confused Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf with Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Both NBA players. Easy to do, I suppose. Abdul-Rauf was the guy you're talking about.

Ramsin / November 2, 2010 12:55 PM

"Chris" (haha),

Good catch. Correction made with note that we made it.

Andrew Kachel / November 2, 2010 12:56 PM

Nice catch there. Next thing you know, I'll be writing about Mugsy Webb. Thanks for the help.

Mitchell Szczepanczyk / November 4, 2010 9:30 AM

the days of Cassius Clay throwing his Olympic medals in the river, or more notably, serving actual prison time in protest against the Vietnam War are long gone. We'll never see that again.

I think it's a bit premature to think that outright political activism is dead and gone in sports. Dave Zirin's regular column Edge of Sports documents the left political dimensions of a lot of contemporary sports, as does his recently published books (4 in all), include A People's History of Sports in the United States. I've interviewed Dave three times over the years on my own weekly radio program on WHPK.

Good article, though.

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