Charles Barkley has been saying he wants to be governor of Alabama. Karl Malone is considering a gubernatorial campaign in Utah. And Magic Johnson has been mentioned as a possible Los Angeles mayor. This is not funny, threatening as it does to lower the dignity of one of America's most important civic institutions—the NBA.
But think about it: Athletes make exceptional politicians, and for one good reason—they're overqualified. For a politician public office is the apex of power and influence. For a pro athlete it's a dizzying fall from being cheered by millions to answering constituent complaints about Aunt Lulu's disability check's being late in the mail. The highest political office in the land can't give the thrill of sports. Imagine Dwight Eisenhower in retirement reverie. Was he fondly remembering the Suez Crisis? Or the days when he was "the Kansas Cyclone" at West Point playing halfback against Jim Thorpe?
It's no wonder athletes, who judge themselves by certain measurable standards of excellence, find politics a big step down from sports. The only objective standard of political performance is incumbency. When being hard to get rid of is praiseworthy, cockroaches are the champion species. There is no quality control in politics. Politicians are so untalented that sometimes they barely show a talent for politics. If legislative acumen, coherent global strategy and communication skills were what got you into the majors, Jimmy Carter would have been cut from his T-ball team. If selfless public service were a forward pass, then, in 1975, Richard Nixon would have been the only 62-year-old quarterbacking in the Pop Warner league.
You'll notice that pro athletes don't become corrupt politicians, either—even when we have an athlete who comes from a sport that is admittedly fixed. Jesse Ventura looks honest compared with other pols. (We almost believe him when he says he's retiring to protect his family's privacy.) This is because the cash involved in political corruption isn't enough to flip for a kickoff. All the political contributions ever made by Arthur Andersen wouldn't amount to one decent product endorsement deal. True, the World Series was thrown in 1919. But Arnold Rothstein's buying off a few members of the Chicago Black Sox can hardly be compared with Joe Kennedy's buying off the entire state of Illinois for his son Jack in 1960.
Nor are jocks easy prey to libidinous temptations with aides and interns. Monica Lewinsky may have looked-like Catherine Zeta-Jones to a lard-butt who played saxophone in the school band. To even a relief pitcher on the Norfolk Tides, Monica would look like Elsie, the Borden's cow.
If you're still not convinced that sports is a higher calling than politics, imagine the traffic going in the opposite direction. Barney Frank on the balance beam. Strom Thurmond above the rim. Teddy Kennedy tending goal. (Actually, just as a proposition in solid geometry, that might work.) Meanwhile, make Mike Tyson ambassador to France and you have improved the mental health and physical fitness standards of European diplomacy and the WBC.
"Public service," they call it; it sounds so noble. But participating in politics never saved a boy from reform school. In terms of avoiding a life of crime, think how much better it would have been for Bill Clinton if he had been taken under the wing of Cus D'Amato instead of Senator Fulbright. Wellington said, "The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton." Nobody ever said, "The World Cup was won in the student council elections of St. Albans prep school."
Let's go to the record books. Athletes who've become politicians lead their leagues. Former Buffalo Bills quarterback and nine-term congressman Jack Kemp is the first Republican to have had any new ideas since Abraham Lincoln. He was the only candidate on the 1996 presidential tickets who didn't need a polygraph or Alzheimer's medication. And, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Kemp actually had a clue about what causes poverty (lack of money).
Cooperstown inductee and Republican senator from Kentucky Jim Bunning pitched a perfect game for the Philadelphia Phillies. He still throws a mean sidearm brushback at people trying to avoid responsibility and impinge on freedom.
Seattle Seahawks Hall of Fame receiver and former Oklahoma congressman Steve Largent, who's running for governor, is foursquare and upright. He's a Christian conservative without the Tammy Faye luggage. If you happen to be a liberal, there's onetime New York Knicks forward Bill Bradley with two championship rings and 18 years in the Senate.