- Alan Grant
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[Author's Note: Talking politics can be a slippery slope. As a former athlete who just happens to be an outspoken black man, the terrain can be even more treacherous. People think they've got you pegged the minute they meet you. Well, let me tell you where I stand: I've never belonged to a gang or a fraternity and I'm not about to join one now. I'm an independent who favors any candidate who embodies diversity, embraces the dream of Martin Luther King and thinks people of limited means should have affordable health care. There, now that that's out of the way …]
The best ideas always begin with a simple conversation.
This one began about six months ago. At the time, I asked former Redskins cornerback Darrell Green if he'd be running for office. It was a logical question. For the past twenty some years, Green has been the Beltway's longest running show. After his retirement from the league, it seemed like a natural extension of his legacy that he seek a public office. A lot of athletes, such as Jack Kemp, Bill Bradley, Steve Largent and most recently Heath Shuler, have traded their athletic visibility for policy-making positions.
He waffled a bit, but Green finally said "No, I've decided not to run."
"I've always wanted to help the less fortunate. I can do that with my 14 learning centers. But in office you can't devote your time to things you care about." His reason was formed in part by a friendship with J.C. Watts, a former Congressman who may be the best true option quarterback on this planet. "I think a lot of those guys in office get frustrated," said Green. "They can't have the impact they want. And I definitely think I can have more of an impact outside of office."
This season, some players are making impressions far away from the field of play. In the past few weeks, Cleveland Browns players have joined the political game. Willie McGinest threw support behind Barack Obama and Brady Quinn and Joe Thomas showed up on stage to endorse John McCain. Soon after, coach Romeo Crennell put the kibosh on political activism, at least for the duration of campaign season. His reaction is understandable. Political discussion in the locker room isn't all that common, and perhaps for some coaches it is a cause for concern. I recall some rather high brow discussions among the Nation of Islam and the Christian right, but for the most part, guys are making so much money they're seldom moved by the political process and its bearing on the rest of the world.
Former linebacker Peter Boulware is different. He shares his thoughts in the carefully measured tones of a guy trying to answer questions without pissing anyone off. That's because the Baltimore Ravens all-time leader in sacks is currently running for the Florida State House of Representatives Ninth District. Boulware's candidacy is intriguing because of two undeniable facts: 1) From 1994-96 Boulware was the most dominant defensive player, not just at Florida State University, but in the entire country, and this isn't something easily forgotten by the folks in Tallahassee, and 2) He's a Republican, and they don't win the Ninth district.
Boulware says political discussion in the Ravens' locker room wasn't exactly heated. "We had some back and forth," he says. "But no one really talked about issues that much." It makes sense, especially in Baltimore where in 2000, as the Ravens were winning Super Bowl XXXV, they were rather decisively casting themselves as the premiere defensive unit of the 21st century. Who had the time to care about policy?
But this year, league wide, politics have been a bigger topic. "People want to be a part of this discussion," says Boulware. "McCain and Palin have people interested and Barack Obama is very charismatic."
Boulware isn't bucking conventional wisdom as much as he's (Purposely? Coincidentally? Naturally?) mimicking Barack Obama. Except...
The man is a Republican running for a spot in a Democratic district and he supported Mike Huckabee in the Republican primary. That ain't exactly Obama. But when asked if it's unusual—in these racially-charged days to be a black republican in the ninth district or any district, county, or state for that matter—Boulware's response is rather Obamaesque in that he quickly steers the conversation away from exotic topics like race, and back to the boring meat-and-potatoes of policy. "I don't look at it that way," he says politely. "I'm not a partisan sort of guy so that doesn't really come up. I'm about education, protecting jobs and lowering property taxes. I'm about the issues."
Back in DC, Redskins Park is abuzz. The man eager to discuss the issues is a third-year cornerback named Leigh Torrance. "This political season has people engaged he says. "There's a lot more conversation about politics because people are concerned about the country." But with the political climate as volatile as it is, can the talk be divisive for the team? "It's not a dividing factor" says Torrence. "Our conversation is just raw debate, which is consistent with the locker room atmosphere. It's a good way to get to know your teammates."
Getting to know Torrence is easy because he's pretty open about his views. "In this election I'm backing Barack Obama," he says. "I can relate to his message, especially on education. That's had the biggest influence on my life." The erstwhile nickel back is also something of a political go-getter. Torrence recently organized a voter registration around the D.C. area. But unlike in Cleveland, there was no reaction from Redskins coach Jim Zorn. Torrence asked the coach if he was concerned, Zorn claimed he was "cool with it."
It makes sense. Zorn's best buddy from his playing days was a guy named Steve Largent. After 14 years and 13,000 receiving yards, Largent served in the House of Representatives for Oklahoma, where, even as a Republican, he clashed with Newt Gingrich. He ceded his House seat to run for Governor of Oklahoma, where he was a huge favorite until a wealthy Independent snagged a ton of his votes, and some voters took issue to his opposition to cock-fighting. (Really.)
Torrence admits he's thought about running for office one day. He did, after all, spend one off-season in an unpaid internship on Capitol Hill. But for now he says he'd like to see what he can accomplish through his youth foundation. "If I can make more of a difference by being in office, I'll do it."
Until then, it's worth talking about.
Alan Grant is a former NFL defensive back who played collegiately at Stanford. He writes weekly for ESPNTheMag.com and his archives are here.
When NFL players gravitate toward politics.