Commentary

Jay Riemersma runs again -- for office

When one-time pro athletes run, they start with the advantage of exposure

Updated: July 19, 2010, 10:36 AM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

ZEELAND, Mich. -- I was riding through town with a couple of friends one day when a large campaign sign caught my eye.

It read: Jay Riemersma for Congress.

I bleed maize and blue, so I remembered Riemersma from his heyday at the University of Michigan, and it was my Wolverine loyalty that prompted me to casually follow his nine-year NFL career.

[+] EnlargeJay Riemersma
Karl Wright/Icon SMIJay Riemersma had stints with the Bills and Steelers in the NFL.

"Wow, what has Riemersma done since football?" I asked Glenn Ridder, one of the guys in the car, who also happens to be the defensive coordinator at nearby Godwin Heights High School.

"Nothing," said Ridder, a straight shooter who has coached a few sports over his 13 years and has a .500 record in football. "He tried to be a coach but quit."

Sure enough, Riemersma -- who graduated as the star quarterback at Zeeland High School in 1991 -- came back to the area in 2005, just as his old school district was being split in two, Zeeland East and West. In three years as the head coach of East, he won exactly one game.

"We won just one game while I was there," he said to The Grand Rapids Press about his coaching stint. "I'm really proud, though, of what we tried to accomplish in building character in the kids."

After that, he was the regional director for a conservative lobbying group, the Family Research Council, before deciding to run for office.

Given his limited experience in politics since playing football, I couldn't escape the feeling that the main reason he feels he might have a chance to win the race in Michigan's 2nd congressional district (against two other men who have held office, no less) is because he's a hometown hero who made it to the NFL.

He told me that's not the case.

"I don't like the direction the country is going in and I believe I can help turn things around," he said. "I don't think I'm relying on me being a former professional athlete to get into office."

Nonetheless, "autographs available" has appeared on his website. In fairness, he's hardly the only retired athlete to remind potential voters he's a former pro.

Two years after the late Jack Kemp's final season with the Bills, the one-time quarterback was elected to Congress, representing suburban Buffalo. He ran for president in 1988, and in 1996 he was Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole's choice for vice president. Through it all, he was often photographed holding and tossing footballs, a constant reminder of his career (which included an MVP for the 1965 AFL season).

Former senator and NBA All-Star Bill Bradley is practically making out with a basketball on the cover of his 1998 pre-presidential campaign book "Values of the Game," which included a foreword by Phil Jackson, who played with Bradley on the New York Knicks.

Both Kemp and Bradley had prepared for public service. Kemp spent his offseasons in political apprenticeships and Bradley was a Rhodes Scholar who also spent his offseason volunteering on campaigns before running himself. Riemersma was a very good student at Michigan but did not have the same experiences as Kemp and Bradley.

[+] EnlargeJack Kemp
J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty ImagesJack Kemp recalled memories of his playing career during his campaign with Bob Dole.

Not that that's necessary.

Other athletes-turned-politicians, such as J.C. Watts and Dave Bing, didn't spend a lot of time in politics; instead, they were businessmen before running for office. But it is interesting how the country's recent history of professional athletes making the leap to politics comes after two decades of explosive growth in sports coverage. Once, football games weren't even televised. Now the NFL draft is in prime time. We chide LeBron James for making his free-agency announcement via an hourlong TV special, but his free agency was a spectacle long before that with websites, appreciation rallies and even a recruiting nudge from the White House.

Besides, the training and exposure begins with the hordes of cameras at the press conference of a high school kid telling us where he's going to college. Is there any doubt that elected office is a natural career progression for those accustomed to the public eye?

The more our love for sports grows, the more our affinity for the people who play sports grows. And that affection can potentially cloud our judgment. I have no doubt that prior to his defection to the Minnesota Vikings, Brett Favre could have easily represented the Green Bay area in Congress. Tim Tebow hasn't even played an NFL game, yet his jersey is the league's top seller. He could win election as Florida 's lieutenant governor tomorrow if he wanted to run.

I'm joking -- kinda.

"It's very difficult to replace what it's like to be a professional athlete," said Greg Dale, one of the nation's leading sports psychologists and a professor at Duke. "The adrenaline, the attention, the spotlight ... we're kidding ourselves if we don't think politics help retired athletes fill that void.

"But some do go into politics not because of the power and ego but because they believe they can make a difference, and they use their notoriety to put them in position to help people. The question is, can the voters tell the difference between the two?"

That indeed is the challenge. Every politician has an ego. But figuring out how much a political career is about an individual and how much is about the people he represents is tough enough without the added distraction of his having played for a favorite team.

[+] EnlargeJ. C. Watts
AP Photo/Greg CampbellJC Watts spent eight years in Congress representing Oklahoma.

Then there's this caveat: Culturally, we've bought into this "dumb jock" and "selfish" stereotype so much that when we see an athlete who isn't "dumb" or "selfish," we overreact because our expectations for them were so low. Shame on us, of course, but nevertheless it can skew our assessments.

If Riemersma wins the primary in August and then the general election in November, would it be based on his platform or his popularity, and how would we really know? By comparison, Detroit Mayor Bing and Sacramento Mayor Kelvin Johnson, two men who started community development companies in their hometowns before running for office, appear more qualified. But can we honestly say their status as former pros didn't help?

"I gave it my all to succeed as a professional athlete and I'm extremely proud of what I accomplished with the Phoenix Suns," Johnson said. "I realized when I embarked on a political career that I would always be associated with being a professional athlete and I embraced that. Regardless of my profession, I want people to see me as a hard worker, whether it was on the basketball court, the campaign trail or in office, and so far I think I've succeeded."

Same goes for former NFL QB Heath Shuler, who represents North Carolina's 11th congressional district.

"My wife and I began a scholarship program for kids who graduated from my high school to go to college," said Shuler, who started a real estate company after retiring. "While running that program, and through other charity work and civic engagement, I was encouraged by a number of community leaders to run for Congress.

"I became convinced to run when I met a single mom who was struggling to feed herself and her kids after she lost her job at a textile factory that closed and moved overseas. Too many of my neighbors were losing their jobs due to plant closings, and one of the top reasons I ran was to help save the jobs."

Help save jobs. That sounds good enough to me. And to Riemersma.

"I grew up in this area and I see people hurting because of the economy," the former tight end said. "I want to do all I can to help."

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine