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Sports and politics: When worlds collide

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 // Sep 12, 2016

Ralph Nader argued back in 2004 that if Americans brought the same discerning eye to the political process that they do with sports, we’d be much better off as a country. Over the next two months the worlds of sports and politics will collide  —  as they do every four years when a presidential election happens. College football season has begun, the NFL season is about to kick off, MLB pennant races are heating up, and NBA teams are readying to take the court in just a few weeks. Meanwhile, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are crisscrossing the country in search of votes  —  and dollars —  to carry their campaigns to victory in November.

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This intersection of sports and politics will take many forms this fall. Fans watching a game on TV in a swing state (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, etc) will be bombarded with political advertising. As the candidates and their surrogates visit the different battleground states, you’ll get accustomed to hearing first-class pandering and sports-themed attempts at political humor. Athletes, on and off the field, will be asked to weigh in on political issues  —  from criminal justice to gun rights to equal pay  —  and some will choose to stand up (or kneel as the case may be) for their views on the field. And on at least a few evenings this fall, viewers will be forced to choose between watching sports (Monday Night Football, MLB Wild Card Game, etc.) and the presidential debates.

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Miami Dolphins players kneel during National Anthem at NFL 2016 season opener.

What isn’t clear about this collision of national interests is whether sports have any direct impact on the outcome of an election (or vice versa). Data shows that the past seven Democrats to be elected president of the United States all won the general election in years that the Eastern Conference came out on top in the NBA Finals —  but there are other data points you could use to predict a different outcome if you so choose. Having the support of well-known sports figures can certainly help add star status and validation to a presidential campaign — in 2008, then-Senator Obama received endorsements from celebrity athletes including LeBron James, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan on his way to winning the White House — but fans don’t generally look to their favorite point guard for guidance on how to vote.

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Whether there is data to prove a meaningful connection between sports and politics or not, we know that campaigns and candidates have always pursued support from athletes and owners , and 2016 is no different. Here is how different bold-faced names from the world of sports have lined up to support Clinton and Trump.

Sports figures supporting Hillary Clinton:

1. Hank Aaron hosted a fundraiser for Secretary Clinton in Atlanta in early 2016.

2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post saying, “Clinton possesses that rare but crucial combination of idealism and pragmatism.” He also addressed the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, where he criticized Trump for his immigration positions, saying “Donald Trump’s idea to register Muslims and prevent them from entering our country is the very tyranny [Thomas] Jefferson abhorred.”

3. Former NBA star Grant Hill joined Clinton at a campaign event in late 2015.

4. Former U.S. women’s soccer player Abby Wambach campaigned for Clinton ahead of the New Hampshire primary in January 2016.

5. Former WNBA player Chamique Holdsclaw, former Olypmic track star Carl Lewis, Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, and tennis legend Billie Jean King have all tweeted their support for Clinton. Magic Johnson wished Clinton a happy birthday via Twitter on October 26, 2015, adding that she “has my vote to be the next President of the United States!”

6. Former Boston Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, current Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, and Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive have all donated to Clinton’s campaign. Former NBA Commissioner David Stern and current NBA Commissioner Adam Silver have donated as well.

7. And, former Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan has been a full-time staff member of Clinton’s campaign team. Kwan’s title with the Clinton campaign is surrogate outreach coordinator.

Sports figures supporting Donald Trump:

1. NASCAR CEO Brian France endorsed Trump in late February.

2. Jack Nicklaus praised Trump for turning the nation “upside down” during an interview with CBS This Morning in May.

3. At the Republican Convention in Cleveland in July, UFC president Dana White, professional golfer Natalie Gulbis, and former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton all had speaking slots. Don King was not invited to speak at the RNC, but he still showed up in Cleveland and offered his public support for Donald Trump.

4. Nick Mangold, the Jets center, endorsed Trump in in Dayton, Ohio in March 2016. Bobby Knight campaigned with Trump ahead of the Indiana primary. And Rex Ryan introduced Trump at a campaign rally in Buffalo in April 2016.

5. Johnny Damon, who appeared on Celebrity Apprentice, endorsed Trump in March 2016 telling the NY Daily News at the time, “I’m a Trump fan ever since I met him seven or eight years ago. Everything he does, he does first-class —  his hotels, his businesses, his golf courses. The issues all the other politicians failed to discuss, (Trump) is bringing us up to speed.” Another Apprentice alum, Dennis Rodman, has also endorsed Trump.

6. Trump has also received support from Paul O’Neill, Curt Schilling, Terrell Owens, John Rocker, Latrell Sprewell, Mike Tyson, and Herschel Walker.

Fans love it when their team is posting victories or their favorite player is throwing down poster-worthy dunks, but when those same teams promote a social issue or a player expresses his/her views on current affairs, they are told they have strayed from their lane. Sports and politics may compete for the attention and interest of the American public a few months out of the year, but how exactly they influence each other, or not, still needs to be figured out.

One thing we know for sure about sports this year’s election: Whoever wins this November will have the privilege of hosting the champions at the White House for the next four years.

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