Athletes in Politics

The midterm election held last week temporarily brought politics to the public forefront once again, and brought Americans out to make their voices heard. But, what many voters didn’t know as they headed to the polls, was that the fate of a historic winning streak was placed in many of their hands. It wasn’t a streak held by Democrats or the Republicans, or streak of elections won by a certain incumbent. Instead, it ended the 53-year run of having a former professional athlete in the US Congress.

From the year 1961, when former Denver Nugget Mo Udall stepped into congress, the era of athlete-politicians began. He opened the door for politically interested former athletes to use their familiarity to make a stab at a possible political career, and it came with much success. During Udall’s 30-year career, more and more athletes, like Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning and former ABA and NBA player Thomas McMillen, came along to serve terms. As the former athletes retired or were voted out, more would slip into their place to keep the athletic caucus occupied. In 1988, this “Jock Bloc” reached its peak with a total of five former pro athletes holding seats.

Professional athletes were not limited to the marginal power seats in the House or senate, as a few moved on to became cabinet members and beyond. In 1978, Udall ran for president, winning the Arizona Democratic primary, but fell short to future president Jimmy Carter in 7 other states. Some would argue that Michigan’s very own Gerald Ford became the first professional athlete to become president, a feat still unreached. However, Ford never played professional sports, but did receive to offers to play in the NFL for either the Detroit Lions or Green Bay Packers after graduating from Michigan, only turning them down to pursue his law degree.

This January, when former Michigan and NFL offensive tackle Jon Runyan steps down, the sun will set on this unique era. But why aren’t people electing athletes anymore? Unfortunately, there isn’t a blaring answer to this inquiry. Maybe the novelty of electing these former ‘celebrities’ has worn off on the Selectorate, or maybe the novelty of being elected has worn off on the players. Another theory is the increase of violent crimes being committed by modern professional athletes. With professional athletes averaging higher arrest rates than the US average, voters may be reluctant to vote for candidates connected with these types of labels. Also, as more research comes out showing the devastating effects some sports can have on athletes, mental wellness becomes a huge question mark for potential candidates could be one more point of political attack for an athlete’s opposition to utilize.

Though there is no clear answer to what caused the “Jock Bloc” downfall, the reality of the situation is a slightly nostalgically unhappy. In years to come, it’ll be easy to look back on this period as a ‘simple time’, where big dreams had no limit; . Kids dreamt of being both a professional football player and the president because they saw role models living that dream. Hopefully, this spirit hasn’t died out and will be reignited bringing about a new golden age of professional athletes serving in politics. But, until then, we’ll sit and wait for a new kid to grow up and become the new Mo Udall.

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2 comments

  1. mollygrant41 · November 17, 2014

    I found this to be an interesting post to read because I am currently assisting on a research project about three State Senates. In the Illinois State Senate, a former NFL player serves. Even though it is not on the national level, I think that he is a role model to kids, like you said you are wishing for. He also owned a pizza parlor, which I think makes him an arguably diverse representative of the citizens in Illinois. So I can see where you are coming from. Kids aspire to be who they look up to. If everyone is represented in American politics, most will take more action, whether it be kids, law students, or the legislators themselves.

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  2. nicolesigmon · November 18, 2014

    I found this blog post really interesting. As to what caused this downfall in electing former pro athletes, I think your ideas are interesting but a bit unplausable. A lot of former pro athletes that have been elected to high up political positions were never really the “star” players, so saying that this downfall may have been caused by the novely of electing these former ‘celebrities’ wearing off is a bit of a stretch because most of them were never really ‘celebrities’. Additionally, I don’t think current athletes being arrested for violence and domestic abuse has anything to do with this downfall because, unless the particular former athlete running for a position had a history of violence, I don’t see it as having any influence over who one votes for. I think the most likely scenario is when you say maybe the novelty of being elected has worn off on the players. I think it has more to do with less pro athletes running and thus less being elected.

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