Robert Lipsyte, America’s Political No-Jocks Zone

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[Note for TomDispatch Readers: A final thanks to all of you who, in response to recent TD pleas, urged others to sign up for the email notice that goes out every time this site posts a piece. If you meant to do so, but haven’t yet, now’s still the perfect time! Just tell friends, acquaintances, colleagues, relatives to go to the “subscribe” window at the upper right of TomDispatch’s main screen, put in their email addresses, hit “submit,” answer the “opt-in” email that instantly arrives in your email box (or, unfortunately, sometimes your spam folder), and receive notices whenever a new post goes up. It’s always great to get new regular readers.  Today’s post from TD’s jock culture correspondent, the former New York Times sports columnist Robert Lipsyte, is introduced by Andy Kroll whose extremely well-visited recent piece, “The Face of a Lost American Generation,” on the long-term unemployment crisis is a must-read. Tom]

The image is seared into Olympic history: Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medals podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, heads bowed, feet bare (to protest black poverty), necks draped with beads (to protest lynching), and most famously their black-gloved fists held aloft in a black power salute. It remains one of the most iconic collisions of sport and activism in history, a jarring and bold statement by two sprinters that left them branded for much of their lives as renegades, radicals, extremists. Which made it startling to learn that Smith, a civil rights icon, has decided to auction off his 1968 gold medal. The bidding, as the New York Times‘ William Rhoden reported, starts at $250,000.

Say it ain’t so, Tommie. Or as the Times‘ Rhoden wrote, “Smith and Carlos raised clenched fists in a silent yet powerful gesture. Now Smith wants to cash in.”

The way Smith’s co-biographer, David Steele, tells it, Smith isn’t actually hawking his medal for lack of cash. Then again, no one’s quite sure why Smith has put the medal up for sale — again. (A 1999 auction failed to garner bids high enough for him.) Steele suggests that Smith might use the money to start a youth foundation in his central California hometown, and either way, that no one should read the worst into Smith’s intentions: “Until further notice, it sounds as if that’s the better assumption to make: that Smith again sees a way to have that gold medal make a tangible impact on others in a way it isn’t doing now while tucked away at his house.”

Whatever Smith ends up doing with his medal will never overshadow his courage on that warm night in Mexico City, a decision that led to a life as a human rights activist, writer, and speaker. If only the ex-jocks currently vying for coveted spots in that most public of American spaces — I’m talking about politics — had half as much morality or mettle as Tommie Smith. Quite the opposite: As Robert Lipsyte, longtime sportswriter and TomDispatch’s Jock Culture correspondent, writes, today’s athletes-turned-politicians are a roster of blowhards and hypocrites running for office in what’s shaping up to be a blockbuster (with an emphasis on the “bust”) midterm election season. (To catch Lipsyte discussing why jocks make such good candidates and poor politicians in a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.) Andy 

Leave ‘Em in the Locker Room
Pro Athletes Make Lousy Public Officials
By Robert Lipsyte

Old sportswriters are always being asked for tips on big games. Here’s one for the biggest game on the schedule: never vote for a jock.

This is particularly good advice in a political season whose starting line-up includes Chris Dudley, a former NBA back-up center running for governor of Oregon; Linda McMahon, co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment running for senator from Connecticut; and Heath Shuler, a former NFL quarterback, scrambling for a third-term as a member of the House from North Carolina. They are already campaigning to fit into the woeful tradition of Jim Bunning, Jesse Ventura, Tom Osborne, and Vinegar Bend Mizell, athletic role models whose narcissism, ignorance, and conservatism helped them make a seamless transition from entertaining people to exploiting them. 

Keep in mind that the sports-industrial complex tends to produce narrow-minded, self-centered, ethically-challenged mercenaries who are deeply submissive to established authority while being fiercely dedicated to winning by any means possible.  Or as one of my old political advisors, Sam Hall Kaplan, a former New York Times and Los Angeles Times reporter, puts it: “A pol who learned as an athlete just who ultimately butters his bread can be counted on to continue to wave to the crowds while doing the bidding of the owners.” And the owners these days, thanks to the umpires (…er, Supreme Court) are likely to be unnamed billionaire warlords donating to rightwing candidates through dummy organizations that have no requirement to open their books to the voters.

Let’s get this year’s rare exception to my No-Jock mandate out of the way right now. Alan Page, running again for Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, is that rare all-star on the field and on the high bench.

As Jay Weiner, author of This Is Not Florida: How Al Franken Won the Minnesota Senate Recount, reminds us: “One of the wisest and most pointed legal opinions to come out of the recount” of that embattled 2008 election was written by “a picture of Black Robed Dignity” who had once been a “Purple People Eater.” Defensive tackle Page had a 15-season National Football League Hall of Fame career, mostly with the Minnesota Vikings on that fearsome purple-uniformed defensive line.

Two other Democrats, both out of office now, once earned my own grateful votes — New York Governor Mario Cuomo (minor league baseball) and Senator Bill Bradley (two championships with the New York Knicks). 

But after that, a team of losers.

Mostly Republican, Mostly Busts

Leading off our sorry starting line-up for 2012 is Heath Shuler, a Blue Dog Democrat and real-estate investor.  He was also a former Washington Redskins and New Orleans Saints quarterback, rated by ESPN in 2004 as the fourth-biggest NFL draft bust of all time and the 17th biggest “sports flop” of the past 25 years. Of course, those are not good enough reasons to vote against him (unless you happened to root for one of his teams).

But here’s a good reason: his vote against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act because health-care reform could be detrimental to the economy. He was for what he termed “common-sense incremental change” which, in reality, meant slowing the game down until time runs out.

Of further concern is Shuler’s membership in “The Family,” that creepy D.C. frat of evangelical Christian right-wingers like Senators Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint, and Congressmen Zach Wamp and Bart Stupak, and such hypocritical God-Squadders as John Ensign, Chip Pickering, and Mark Sanford. Shuler has bunked down in their infamous locker room, the so-called “C Street house.” Jeff Sharlet, author of C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy, writes about The Family’s “explicit dedication to the ruling class” in America and abroad, and also links the group to Uganda’s murderous anti-homosexuality bill.

Shuler may be an even worse politician than he was a pro athlete. His predecessors in the Jock House, all Republicans, were certainly a mixed bag. Jack Kemp, an MVP quarterback in the old American Football League, who twice led the Buffalo Bills to the championship, served nine terms. A basically decent and intelligent man, Bush the First’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Bob Dole’s vice-presidential running mate, Kemp was a Reagan supply-sider whose major piece of legislation, the Kemp-Roth Tax Cut, helped put the trickle in trickle-down economics while the guys up top enjoyed the waterfall.

After Kemp, the roster only grows weaker with Wilmer (Vinegar Bend) Mizell, a left-hander in his nine-year major league pitching career and a right-winger in three terms from North Carolina; Jim Ryun, one of the world’s greatest milers and one of the most conservative Kansans to reach the Congressional Oz since Toto ran the Yellow Brick Road; and Tom Osborne, a former NFL wide receiver who, before scoring his House seat, coached Nebraska for 25 years, famously with stars who should have been in jail. (He once asked me, “Would you rather they were on my team or in your neighborhood?”) As a three-term representative, he received a lifetime rating of 83 from the American Conservative Union.

The Big Boys

Back to the jock-pol lowlights of 2012: Chris Dudley was a strong rebounder and shot blocker for several teams over 16 seasons, a tribute to his athleticism, but he was also the NBA’s all-time second-worst foul shooter (the mark of a weak work ethic), setting the league record for 13 missed free throws in a row.  This is not a good enough reason to vote against him for governor of Oregon.

And the jury (actually it’s an IRS matter at the moment) is out on the $350,000 tax deduction he took for allowing a local fire department to burn down a 4,500-square-foot house on his property. He later built an 8,500-square-foot home on that scorched earth plot and so ignited a campaign controversy: Was it legal or just another example of an entitled jock bending the rules?

Still, no blatant foul. Yet.

On the other hand, his positions on the environment and the minimum wage put him out of bounds — or rather, when it comes to the environment, his studiously ominous lack of a position. Throughout his campaign he has dodged questions about natural resources and global warming (“Global warming exists. And mankind contributes. How much? I don’t know…”) for a good reason: timber and agricultural interests are his major financial backers. According to Jeff Mapes in the Oregonian, “Jon Isaacs of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters… noted that in addition to supporting higher logging levels, Dudley has said he is against a permanent ban on oil drilling off the Oregon coast and opposes Ballot Measure 76, which would continue the 15% diversion from lottery profits for parks and wildlife habitat.”

Like most jocks, Dudley is not sensitive to the people in the grandstands. He can say (or joke?) that he understands “minority” concerns, having been a white man in the predominately black NBA, and he can say, “It doesn’t make sense that our waitresses are getting tips plus the highest minimum wage in the country.” Not exactly slam dunks, either of them.

At 6 feet 11 inches tall, Dudley’s height puts him in the same league with at least two oversized jock-governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura, who initially rose through the ranks of sports, and may yet encourage Charles Barkley to run for governor of Alabama in 2014 as he has promised/threatened for years. Currently a sportscaster, Barkley is an NBA Hall of Famer and, more important for a politician, a member of the media’s all-interview team. He’s best known for a Nike ad in which he said, “I am not a role model.”

Hall Kaplan, who covered Schwarzenegger’s first gubernatorial campaign for a local Los Angeles TV station, sums up the Gubernator’s California years this way: “The jock’s need to dominate and to win at any costs certainly applies to his term of office.  He has shown little initiative and little imagination, while playing to the crowds and the cronies. Particularly onerous has been the deep cuts in public education while declining to face up to the need for progressive tax reform.”

Weiner, who had a close-up view of Ventura while working as a reporter at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, summed up the former Minnesota governor, Dudley’s other potential role model, this way: he “could not separate the faux professional wrestling world from the real political and public policy world. To him, all the world was a stage and not the hard work of compromise. You just don’t strike deals with Hulk Hogan, ya know. You win or you lose, or you jump off the ropes and cause a stir. Or, as Ventura did, you leave the political arena because you’re not the center of attention anymore.”

Sexy Bitch

Ventura may be gone from politics — he hosts a TV show about conspiracy theories — but wrestling is still trying to get a hold on us.

Linda McMahon is campaigning for the Senate in Connecticut as a savvy businesswoman who will bring fiscal restraint to a strapped, overblown state government through the usual Reaganomic supply-side measures, including — of course — various corporate tax cuts and the abolition of the estate tax and the gift tax. She may end up spending $50 million of her own money to join the senatorial ranks. No big deal.  She and husband Vince built World Wrestling Entertainment into a billion dollar global enterprise, proving she can grow things, and to prove she knows how to enjoy her money, there is the McMahon’s 47-foot yacht, Sexy Bitch.

Probably even more than pro football players — those other violent wide-bodies — wrestlers need steroids and pain medication to stay big, play hurt, and maintain their relentless schedule.  (Many wrestlers, including Hulk Hogan, have admitted to steroid use.) One result may be that professional wrestlers are 20 times more likely than professional football players to die before the age of 45, according to a USA Today investigation.

Four wrestlers have died this year including, most recently, 29-year-old Lance McNaught (who fought as Lance Cade). His death of heart failure, after steroid and pain-pill abuse to keep himself in the game, brought up the issue of McMahon’s culpability. How much did she know about her workers’ drug use? Were her employees under so much pressure to perform — or lose their jobs — that the corporation should be blamed for their deaths? WWE conveniently deals with its wrestlers as independent contractors, offering no benefits, not even health insurance.

McMahon has successfully deflected confrontational campaign trail questions about McNaught’s steroid use and the trail of dead wrestlers strewn behind the WWE. While she sometimes claims to know little about what she likes to call the “creative” side of wrestling — after all, she’s the serious businesswoman — she has actually performed in the ring.

If you think wrestling is merely slabs of beef colliding in orchestrated mayhem, you haven’t been paying attention. Big events include scripted mini-dramas that can play on for months among wrestlers, male and female, and even have included the McMahons. In one ongoing soap opera, Linda is being “emotionally abused” by Vince and falls into a “coma.” When she awakes (in the ring), she accuses him of philandering and pretends to kick him in the groin.

You want that in the state house? We don’t even need to go into whether or not she wants to decrease the minimum wage — as she once implied but now has backtracked on. My suspicion is that, if elected, she could well compete with the departing Republican Senator from Kentucky Jim Bunning for worst Jock Senator in history.

Last Pitch

As you might know, it was as a Philadelphia Phillies pitcher that Bunning tossed a perfect game against the New York Mets in 1964. It was the high point of a 17-year Hall of Fame career. It also gave both sports and political writers license to hurl the word “imperfect” at his two-term Senatorial record.  In 2006, Time called him one of the worst five senators of his time. Time dubbed him “the underperformer.” In their 2007 conservative/liberal rankings, National Journal had Bunning as the second-most conservative senator trailing only that “Family” man, Jim DeMint of South Carolina.

In his final innings, Bunning notoriously prevented the Senate from extending unemployment benefits for more than 1.2 million workers for more than a month. When fellow senators begged him to halt his filibuster, according to Politico, Bunning’s reply was: “Tough shit.” Describing Bunning as “loutish, eccentric, and mean,” Joe Conason in accused him of using the Jim Bunning Foundation to shelter his fees from the baseball memorabilia shows at which he appeared to sell autographs.

It was the Republican Party that sent Bunning to the showers a couple of months ago. He decided not to run again because of lack of GOP support and funds. Score a rare one for the GOP. Bunning was my quintessential incumbent jerk-jock politician who you should never vote for. And he was stupid. Case in point: he said, “I watch Fox News to get my information.”

Robert Lipsyte is a former New York Times sports columnist and Jock Culture correspondent for His memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter, will be published next year.  To catch Lipsyte discussing why jocks make such good candidates and poor politicians in a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview, click here or, to download it to your iPod, here.

Copyright 2010 Robert Lipsyte