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.