A different kind of arena: athletes moving into politics

ED KAPP — The Carillon (University of Regina)

REGINA (CUP) — With Saskatchewan Roughriders offensive lineman Gene Makowsky currently seeking a berth in Saskatchewan’s legislature, and former ‘Rider Chris Szarka’s city council election victory in 2009, it appears as if the province’s political landscape is getting a bit “greener.”

While there isn’t exactly a strong tradition of Roughriders-turned-politicians in Saskatchewan — although former ‘Riders’ running back Corey Holmes has been the mayor of Metcalfe, Miss., since 2009 — from historical and global perspectives, this phenomenon of athletes crossing over into politics isn’t too far out of the ordinary.

Saskatchewan Roughriders offensive lineman Gene Makowsky may be permanently trading in his football equipment for a suit and tie.

Before Szarka ran for city council a few years ago, Ken Dryden, a hall-of-fame goaltender with the Montreal Canadiens, entered the House of Commons in 2004. Well before Dryden made his mark in Canadian politics, Gerald R. Ford, the 40th president of the United States, won a pair of national championships as a college football player at the University of Michigan in the 1930s.

From 2003 through 2007, UFC’s Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, was a member of Croatia’s Parliament. And in the Philippines, Manny Pacquiao, who is widely regarded as one of the most dominant boxers of all time, was elected to his country’s House of Representatives in 2010.

Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, arguably the most accomplished bodybuilder of all time, and Jesse Ventura, a professional wrestler that was referred to as “The Body” during his time in the ring, have served as the governors of California and Minnesota, respectively.

According to Tina Beaudry-Mellor, a political science professor at the University of Regina, this shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise.

“The fact of the matter is athletes’ careers are short. By the time most athletes are 40, they’re done playing professional sports. They have time for a whole new career if they want,” said Beaudry-Mellor, who has been teaching at the University of Regina for more than a decade. “Secondly, they already have the profile. It takes most people a long time to build a profile, but athletes — rightly or wrongly — have a profile from their athletic careers and it translates really well into their public careers.

“There are tons of parallels between athletics and politics,” she continued. “Sports are highly political, but there are many more parallels between the two. Both are competitive, both require the candidate or athlete to rise to the occasion, both require the candidate or athlete to put in some training time — whether it’s knocking on doors or working out — both require leadership, but also teamwork.”

Although runs in the world of politics by former athletes have yielded mixed results thus far — don’t forget ex-United States president George W. Bush once suited up for Yale’s baseball squad — Beaudry-Mellor is embracing the crossover.

“Unfortunately, I would have to say that there haven’t been enough [athletes entering politics],” Beaudry-Mellor said. “I hope that there will be more in the future. What concerns me, though, is that we have become used to the idea that only certain people should run for political office, and that is wrong. Everybody in our society should be able to run for political office — everybody. Athletes, musicians, artists, teachers, doctors, lawyers, students — everybody should be able to run for political office.

“I would like to see more athletes run and I hope they do. I think we will see more, because having that public profile is becoming increasingly important and athletes come with that,” she said. “I would like to see them involved for other reasons, though, because it would be great to have some role models in athletics that are beyond the, ‘I made X number of baskets and I’m making two-million dollars a year and I’m spending it on cars and shoes and parties.’ It would be nice to have an alternative to that for our kids.”

Although athletes should be encouraged to make the switch to politics, Beaudry-Mellor admitted that they take a lot of heat.

“Although a lot of athletes get criticized for entering politics — I’ve seen some pretty nasty stuff about Gene Makowsky, for example — I think we should actually be applauding it. There are so few good role models in athletics, so it’s really nice to see an athlete who says, ‘Hey, I want to make the community that I live in better.’ I think we should stand up and applaud that, rather than ridicule it.”

According to Beaudry-Mellor, the world of politics seems to be experiencing a bit of a shift, one in which more people should take part.

“Politics has always been dominated by lawyers and business people — it always has been. To some degree, it’s that way because those were the individuals that have the connections, but that’s changing,” Beaudry-Mellor said.

“If we want a more democratic society, if we want a system that speaks to a broader population than just the upper middle-class groups, then we’ve got to embrace more voices in the legislature. We need more Aboriginal people, we need more athletes, we need more students, we need more teachers in office. That way, we’ll get better politics.”


Photos: The Saskatchewan Party & reginapatshistory.com