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Posted: Tuesday September 9, 2008 10:20AM; Updated: Tuesday September 9, 2008 11:32AM
Jon Wertheim Jon Wertheim >

More athletes are taking a stand during this political season

Story Highlights
  • The intersection between sports and politics is increasingly busy
  • Athletes have come a long way from the political indifference of the '80s and '90s
  • Courting the support of athletes has been a specific Obama campaign strategy
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When a hundred or so well-connected, well-heeled Barack Obama supporters attended a Silicon Valley fund-raiser for the candidate at the home of Symantec CEO John Thompson and his wife, Sandi, in June 2007, they were a bit shocked by the figure greeting them at the door. There was the smiling face of Los Angeles Clippers point guard Baron Davis, who later emceed the event and did everything that night but serve the hors d'oeuvres. When it came time to introduce the candidate himself, it was Davis who did the honors, not the hosts, who are minority owners of Davis's former team, the Golden State Warriors. Before handing the microphone over to Obama, Davis bellowed, "Without further ado, the next president of the United States!" and presented to the candidate a Warriors jersey with OBAMA 08 on the back. "That," says Davis, "was definitely one of the highlights of my life."

A coast away, Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling has taken a similarly active role supporting John McCain. He has taped a series of ads for the Republican nominee, and he has touted McCain's candidacy on his popular blog, "If you vote for someone just because a celebrity does, you're an idiot," he says. "At the same time, if I can help draw attention to McCain and get people to hear his message, I'm going to do that. He knows I'm a phone call away."

Two weeks ago Obama accepted the Democratic party's nomination at Invesco Field, home of the Denver Broncos. Last week McCain was officially nominated by the Republicans at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, the arena for the NHL's Minnesota Wild. And this is fitting. Galvanized largely by the presidential election, the intersection between sports and politics is increasingly busy. After years of collective apathy, athletes across sports, from stars to scrubs, are speaking out on issues and social causes, endorsing not just sneakers and cars and sports drinks, but candidates and agendas as well. "Now, with everything going on, if you care about the integrity of the world," says Davis, "how can you not take a stand?"

Davis met Obama for the first time in 2006. During the NBA off-season Davis had addressed the Congressional Black Caucus on the issue of health care for minorities, one of his pet causes. He returned to Washington a few weeks later and met with Obama. After a minimum of small talk, he began bending Obama's ear about what he calls his "main cause": the lack of educational opportunities in the inner city. Davis recalls Obama's response. "He was a human being who didn't have clichés and wasn't trying to sell me something," says Davis. "He had strategic advice for me: Engage the community and use your platform. He saw things from all angles."

When Obama announced his candidacy last year, Davis wrote a check for $2,300, the max an individual may contribute to a single candidate. He then asked the campaign what else he could do to help, and that led to his fund-raising activity. "You know how, as an athlete, you want to be in the game, not on the bench or the sidelines?" says Davis, who signed with the Clippers in July. "I want my man to win, and I want to be involved."

Schilling's ties to McCain go further back. When the McCain campaign contacted him about, well, shilling for the Arizona senator, the decision was really no decision at all. The two have been friends since 2000, when the pitcher joined the Arizona Diamondbacks, and have worked together on issues pertaining to veterans' benefits and melanoma. (McCain and Schilling's wife, Shonda, are both skin-cancer survivors.)

A few weeks before last winter's New Hampshire presidential primary, McCain held a town meeting in Manchester. Most of the crowd of 300 or so thronging the auditorium of a local school had already gotten wind that Schilling would be introducing the Arizona senator. Schilling spoke briefly and gave the obligatory intro: "Now I will turn it over to the next president of the United States!" McCain appeared on stage, and the two men exchanged some lighthearted, sports-themed yucks. But it was what came next that astonished the crowd.

Instead of surrendering the microphone, Schilling stayed on the stage with McCain and took questions from the audience. For upward of an hour, the pitcher and the candidate addressed topics ranging from health care to the war in Iraq to curbing America's reliance on foreign oil. Recently Schilling expanded on his reasons for supporting McCain: "First and foremost, he's a quality human being. [I'm] a military brat, [so] his service to the country is a big deal to me. Unfortunately I think it's less of a priority for a lot of people nowadays, but I think it matters. ... He's accountable. He's experienced. He's going to be the same person in the Oval Office as the person I voted for."

Like Davis and Schilling, an increasing number of athletes are endorsing presidential candidates and speaking out on issues. Ultimate Fighting Championship star Chuck Liddell supports McCain, while Detroit Pistons guard Chauncey Billups introduced Obama at a rally this summer. Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Jeff Suppan, a pious Catholic, has actively protested embryonic stem cell research. NBA journeyman Ira Newble, the son of a civil rights activist, traveled to Africa to call attention to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Houston Rockets forward Tracy McGrady also spent a week in Darfur during the 2007 off-season at the urging of teammate Dikembe Mutombo. McGrady was so moved by what he witnessed that he financed the forthcoming Darfur documentary, Not a Game, and has plans to establish a network of small schools in the refugee camps. (Joey Cheek, the gold-medal-winning speedskater at the 2006 Turin Games, would have attended the Beijing Games as a Darfur activist had the Chinese government not revoked his visa at the last minute.)

No longer is politics the conversational equivalent of a no-fly zone. Says Martina Navratilova, a first-team athlete-activist, "It's like athletes have woken up to what actors and musicians have known forever: I have this amazing platform -- why not use it?"

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