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Original Issue

Choosing Sides

As the 2008 political season heads to its climax—please don't let there be a playoff this year—more players are taking a stand on the issues than this nation has seen in decades

WHEN A hundred orso well-connected, well-heeled Barack Obama supporters attended a SiliconValley fund-raiser for the candidate at the home of Symantec CEO John Thompsonand his wife, Sandi, in June 2007, they were a bit shocked by the figuregreeting them at the door. There was the smiling face of Los Angeles Clipperspoint guard Baron Davis, who later emceed the event and did everything thatnight but serve the hors d'oeuvres. When it came time to introduce thecandidate himself, it was Davis who did the honors, not the hosts, who areminority owners of Davis's former team, the Golden State Warriors. Beforehanding the microphone over to Obama, Davis bellowed, "Without further ado,the next president of the United States!" and presented to the candidate aWarriors jersey with OBAMA 08 on the back. "That," says Davis, "wasdefinitely one of the highlights of my life."

A coast away,Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling has taken a similarly active rolesupporting John McCain. He has taped a series of ads for the Republicannominee, 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 drawattention to McCain and get people to hear his message, I'm going to do that.He knows I'm a phone call away."

Last Thursday,Obama accepted the Democratic party's nomination at Invesco Field, home of theDenver Broncos. This week McCain will be officially nominated by theRepublicans at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, the arena for the NHL's MinnesotaWild. And this is fitting. Galvanized largely by the presidential election, theintersection between sports and politics is increasingly busy. After years ofcollective apathy, athletes across sports, from stars to scrubs, are speakingout on issues and social causes, endorsing not just sneakers and cars andsports drinks, but candidates and agendas as well. "Now, with everythinggoing on, if you care about the integrity of the world," says Davis,"how can you not take a stand?"

DAVIS MET Obamafor the first time in 2006. During the NBA off-season Davis had addressed theCongressional Black Caucus on the issue of health care for minorities, one ofhis 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 callshis "main cause": the lack of educational opportunities in the innercity. Davis recalls Obama's response. "He was a human being who didn't haveclichés and wasn't trying to sell me something," says Davis. "He hadstrategic advice for me: Engage the community and use your platform. He sawthings from all angles."

When Obamaannounced his candidacy last year, Davis wrote a check for $2,300, the max anindividual may contribute to a single candidate. He then asked the campaignwhat 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 benchor the sidelines?" says Davis, who signed with the Clippers in July. "Iwant my man to win, and I want to be involved."

Schilling's tiesto 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 ArizonaDiamondbacks, and have worked together on issues pertaining to veterans'benefits and melanoma. (McCain and Schilling's wife, Shonda, are bothskin-cancer survivors.)

A few weeks beforelast winter's New Hampshire presidential primary, McCain held a town meeting inManchester. Most of the crowd of 300 or so thronging the auditorium of a localschool had already gotten wind that Schilling would be introducing the Arizonasenator. Schilling spoke briefly and gave the obligatory intro: "Now I willturn it over to the next president of the United States!" McCain appearedon stage, and the two men exchanged some lighthearted, sports-themed yucks. Butit was what came next that astonished the crowd.

Instead ofsurrendering the microphone, Schilling stayed on the stage with McCain and tookquestions from the audience. For upward of an hour, the pitcher and thecandidate addressed topics ranging from health care to the war in Iraq tocurbing America's reliance on foreign oil. Recently Schilling expanded on hisreasons for supporting McCain: "First and foremost, he's a quality humanbeing. [I'm] a military brat, [so] his service to the country is a big deal tome. 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 bethe same person in the Oval Office as the person I voted for."

LIKE DAVIS andSchilling, an increasing number of athletes are endorsing presidentialcandidates and speaking out on issues. Ultimate Fighting Championship starChuck Liddell supports McCain, while Detroit Pistons guard Chauncey Billupsintroduced Obama at a rally this summer. Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Jeff Suppan,a pious Catholic, has actively protested embryonic stem cell research. NBAjourneyman Ira Newble, the son of a civil rights activist, traveled to Africato call attention to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Houston Rockets forwardTracy McGrady also spent a week in Darfur during the 2007 off-season at theurging of teammate Dikembe Mutombo. McGrady was so moved by what he witnessedthat he financed the forthcoming Darfur documentary, Not a Game, and has plansto establish a network of small schools in the refugee camps. (Joey Cheek, thegold-medal-winning speedskater at the 2006 Turin Games, would have attended theBeijing Games as a Darfur activist had the Chinese government not revoked hisvisa at the last minute.)

No longer ispolitics the conversational equivalent of a no-fly zone. Says MartinaNavratilova, a first-team athlete-activist, "It's like athletes have wokenup to what actors and musicians have known forever: I have this amazingplatform—why not use it?"

Let's be clear:This generation of jocks will never be confused with their predecessors in the1960s and '70s, who risked going to jail by refusing to fight in the VietnamWar (Muhammad Ali), stood on the Olympic medal platform lifting black-glovedfists of protest (Tommie Smith and John Carlos) and admitted having had anabortion when publicly supporting the Roe v. Wade decision (Billie Jean King).But today's athletes have come a long way from the political indifference ofthe '80s and '90s, an era characterized not by raised fists but by open palms.That period was perhaps best defined by Michael Jordan's famously declining tosupport Harvey Gantt, an African-American Democrat running for a Senate seatagainst archconservative Jesse Helms in Jordan's home state of North Carolina,saying, "Republicans buy shoes, too." Compare that declaration to thestatement of Davis, who says when he was told "the more I spoke out aboutpolitics, the more I would turn corporate sponsors off," responded,"Who gives a s---?"

"Our issuesaren't as overt [as in the '60s and '70s]," says Orlando Magic centerAdonal Foyle. "You don't see blatant racism and dogs gnawing at people andfire hoses. The politics are more subtle. But, trust me, we're discussing thesame issues—the election, Reverend Wright, the war in Iraq, the economy—aseveryone else.... I think [athletes] are definitely getting moreengaged."

Foyle, in fact,may be the standard-bearer for athletes who can leave a mark in ways other thanwinning titles. A native of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean,Foyle attended Colgate, where he was struck by the level of politicalindifference on campus and in the United States. A history major, Foylediagnosed the cause: money. "Young people were feeling that politics didn'trepresent them," he says. "It was all about the big donors. There was afeeling that a small minority of the wealthy and corporate interests weremaking the decisions."

Foyle joined theNBA in 1997 and four years later founded Democracy Matters, a nonprofit,nonpartisan group that, according to its mission statement, "works to getbig private money out of politics and people back in." Today, there areDemocracy Matters chapters on some 70 college campuses, and, as he has for mostof his NBA career, Foyle spent much of this off-season extolling the virtues ofpublicly financed elections and teaching college kids about grassrootsorganizing and writing petitions.

Because hisorganizational is nonpartisan, Foyle is reluctant to endorse either Obama orMcCain. But an uncommonly large number of athletes are happy to throw theirweight behind a candidate. For instance, Sacramento Kings forward Spencer Hawesis a McCain man. Hawes's car is adorned with a bumper sticker declaring GODBLESS GEORGE W. BUSH—"There's nail marks where people have tried to scrapeit off," he says—and he started a Facebook group for fellow devotees of theconservative pundit Ann Coulter. Florida Marlins first baseman Luis Gonzalez isa McCain supporter. So is San Diego Chargers coach Norv Turner.

According topublic campaign finance records, Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, ChicagoCubs first baseman Derrek Lee and Chicago Blackhawks leftwinger (in a hockeysense) Ben Eager are among the athletes who have contributed to Obama'scampaign. "If we're going to talk about athletes getting involved inpolitics and social causes, and using their celebrity and how that's on therise," says Peter Dreier, a politics professor at Occidental College,"you can't ignore the impact of Obama."

In particular, itwould be naive to ignore the issue of race. It stands to reason that Obamawould find favor in a workforce disproportionately represented byAfrican-Americans. And never mind that Obama's brother-in-law, Craig Robinson,is the basketball coach at Oregon State. You'd be hard-pressed to name anothercandidate who's spent more photo ops shooting jumpers and talking sports. RickWade, a senior adviser to Obama, claims that courting the support of athleteshas been a specific campaign strategy. As Obama tells SI, "I appreciate allthese athletes, as they have a unique ability to reach out to people who mightnot normally engage in politics." (The McCain press office did not respondto repeated interview requests for this story.)

HOW DO athletesvote? When former players enter politics after their careers end, Dreier says,there's a virtual 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans. That is, forevery Senator Jim Bunning (R., Ky.) there's a former Senator Bill Bradley (D.,N.J.); for every Congressman Heath Shuler (D., N.C.) there's a CongressmanSteve Largent (R., Okla.) And traditional stereotypes don't necessarily hold.For all the athletes who grew up with left-leaning parents or benefiting fromliberal social programs, many end up gravitating to the right. As agent LeighSteinberg puts it, "You know the joke: The definition of a conservative isa liberal who just saw the withholding from his bonus check."

Joke or not, it'sno coincidence that the decline of athletes' activism coincided with the riseof big money, both from contracts and endorsement opportunities. As Jordanarticulated, the athlete who adopts a cause risks alienating a block ofconsumers. Last season Newble wrote an open letter to the Chinese governmentcondemning China for its role in the Darfur crisis and asked his ClevelandCavaliers teammates to join him in signing it. While most did, LeBron Jamesrefused, claiming that he was insufficiently informed on the issues to take astand, many suspected that, in fact, his off-court income, particularly fromNike, drove his decision. Likewise, while James has reportedly contributed$20,000 to a committee devoted to electing Obama, he has thus far declined thecampaign's invitation to make a public endorsement.

Navratilova thinksthat today's players are able to exist in a jock cocoon, insulated from issuesaffecting society at large. "Muhammad Ali was an activist [in part] becausehe got drafted," she says. "If [some of today's athletes] got shippedto Iraq, I guarantee we'd hear them speak up."

But for those wholong for more political involvement from their sports idols, they might want tobe careful what they wish for. Former slugger Kirk Gibson, now a Diamondbackscoach, warns, "Just because you're a great athlete doesn't mean you knowwhat you're talking about."

ATHLETES' ACTIVISMalso can come cloaked in colors other than blue and red. Green, for instance.Throughout his eight-year NHL career, Boston Bruins defenseman Andrew Ferencehas considered himself a practicing environmentalist. When the weather permits,he leaves his hybrid car at home and bikes to games. He composts. "Prettymuch go down the list, and I try to do it in my personal life," hesays.

Two years ago,Ference, then with the Calgary Flames, became friendly with David Suzuki, theWayne Gretzky of Canadian environmentalism. As they talked, Ference becameaware of the adverse relationship between pro sports and the planet's health.Ference and Suzuki figured out that, with air travel, bus travel and hotelstays, NHL players are responsible for about 50% more carbon emissions than theaverage North American.

Ference's idea: Heencouraged his teammates to go "carbon-neutral," investing in carbonoffsets to nullify the players' harmful impact on the environment. It startedas a modest program, but after most of Ference's teammates signed on, he tookit leaguewide. Now more than 500 pro hockey players have pledged to gocarbon-neutral. Teams have contacted Ference about "greening theirarenas." The Phoenix Coyotes, for instance, recently began usingbiodegradable utensils at their concession stands. Even businesses outside ofhockey have contacted him about becoming more environmentally conscious."Usually it's the teams or sponsors urging the players to do more,"says Ference. "Hopefully fans see a program like this, think about theissues and try to do more in their personal lives. It's not changing the world,but it's a start."

Ference has takensome occasional grief for his work. He tells the story of having an on-icefight with another player. In between punches, his opponent snarled, "Whydon't you go save the f------ world?"

In the end,Ference says, who cares? "We're showing that we care about something biggerthan the size of our cars or how fast our sports cars are.... To me it's prettysimple: When you're a professional athlete and people look up to you, you havea responsibility to represent something."

"If I CAN HELP," says Schilling, "McCainknows I'm a phone call away."

"With all that's going on, how can you NOT take astand?" says Davis.



Read Austin Murphy's essay on the intersection of sports and politics, andcheck out photo galleries of athletes turned politicians and current athleteswho we think might make good politicians one day.



Illustration by Gluekit