Washington April 2006

Jock Itch

Lynn Swann's run for governor shows why political pros are big fans of star athletes
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As intense as politics can get, few candidates are experienced in encountering throngs of screaming, face-painted partisans. Bill O'Reilly they can suit up for—but not tens of thousands of rabid Pittsburgh Steelers fans, and not in a Super Bowl where the pride of an entire state hinges on their performance. So it was with an ease uncommon in a political novice that Lynn Swann—Hall of Fame wide receiver for the Steelers, MVP of Super Bowl X, and now first-time Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania—recently arrived at a Sheraton in Harrisburg to address the state troopers association as his campaign got under way.

Swann strode into the gathering from the back of the room, and the advantage of his stardom was immediately apparent. As he was announced, a hundred or so burly necks swiveled in unison to gaze at the man canonized after Super Bowl X as "the Baryshnikov of football" for his acrobatic receptions, and for a moment, the no-nonsense visage issued to state troopers along with the badge and gun gave way to schoolboy thrill and awe. It was an extra stroke of luck for Swann that the current Steelers team had just reached the Super Bowl, whipping the state into a frenzy and prompting a rival campaign manager to complain that Swann was getting a "Steeler bounce."

At fifty-four, Swann looks at least a decade younger. His second incarnation as a sports broadcaster has taught him valuable skills: he is impeccably dressed, gracious, and self-deprecating. But he is also far from being a Hall of Fame politician. In delivering his remarks, the leading Republican candidate for governor could do no better than muster a call for "real, productive change" and "real fixes for real problems," and invoke the need to "move forward, not backward" while applying "basic common sense to the commonwealth"—this last apparently a favorite, because he used it several times that day. No platform to push, no proposed direction for the state more precise than "forward," and little evident familiarity with the issues. Swann, in other words, had nothing of substance to offer—not necessarily a disqualifying handicap in politics, though normally a discomfiting one, especially in such an important race. But instead of causing alarm, Swann's performance has so far thrilled the party establishment: recent polls show him tying or beating the incumbent Democratic governor, Ed Rendell.

Political professionals find a lot to like about athletes in general, and Swann in particular. Along with the usual advantages of wealth, fame, and telegenic presence, Swann is a black Republican in a big state, which lends him a sort of MVP status in the party. The GOP has tried for years to attract minorities, without much success. Swann's example, along with that of prominent former Representative J. C. Watts, a standout quarterback at the University of Oklahoma, suggests that athletic heroes are one of the few talent pools that could realistically yield minority candidates for the GOP. More broadly, Swann represents a new breed of sports star that is particularly well suited to campaigning—and thus appeals to both parties.

Plenty of athletes have come to politics before Swann, of course. They include Bill Bradley (NBA) and Jim Bunning (MLB) in the Senate; Watts, Steve Largent (NFL), and Tom McMillen (NBA) in the House; and Jack Kemp (NFL), who was a congressman and Cabinet secretary before he was Bob Dole's vice-presidential nominee. Most were elected in an era when sports stars rarely had qualifications beyond their record of winning on the playing field, and weren't expected to. Swann is more typical of the modern professional athlete, whose career demands are moving ever closer to those of a professional politician. In recent years, successful athletes have become the public faces of sports franchises and companies whose products they endorse, expected to deftly navigate an aggressive and unrelenting media not just in the locker room on game day but in the broader community at all times. Today's franchise athletes are also expected to be publicly involved in community service (some teams even stipulate it in contracts), and anyone who isn't is considered a lout. It's no coincidence that in his candidate guise, Swann touts his experience on the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters before his pass-catching abilities, and his chairmanship of President Bush's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports before his broadcast career.

A certain political fiction has to exist in order for athletes, or any celebrities, to get elected to offices for which many of them lack even the most basic qualifications: it's the idea that celebrity status equips them to govern. Usually it works. In the few instances where this fiction has been pierced and voters have scrutinized a sports star, the athlete usually loses. No one demonstrated this more clearly than stock-car legend Richard Petty, who sought the surprisingly modest office of secretary of state in NASCAR-mad North Carolina. "The King" campaigned only rarely, was ticketed for aggressive driving shortly before the election, and ultimately got passed at the finish line. Swann seems unlikely to make such missteps. But his arrival at the Pennsylvania statehouse is hardly assured. Later that day, as he was crossing the street, Swann was spotted by a local news crew camped outside City Hall. The eager crew, festooned with Steelers paraphernalia, bustled over to request an interview that surely would have made the evening news—the kind of free publicity no candidate with an ounce of savvy would refuse. But Swann declined, saying he was late for a meeting. Even if he occasionally fumbles, though, his star status might save him. In situations both routine and tough, other news crews could cut him the same break this one did: lower its cameras, thank him, and let him go on his way.

Joshua Green is a senior editor of The Atlantic.
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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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