The Case for Athletes in Office: How women with sports backgrounds are changing the political arena
A version of this story originally appeared in the Nov. 7, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
According to the preponderance of polls, the U.S. will elect its first female president on Nov. 8. Have women finally achieved political equality? Not really. Women make up more than 50% of the population but only 19% of Congress, and according to a number of studies cited in a recent story in The New York Times, a large part of that disparity occurs because women are just as likely as men to win, but far less likely to run. An exception is emerging, however: athletes.
Sports and politics have long histories of leaving women on the sidelines. For decades, while America boasted of its democratic independence, women were barred from the voting booths, told that running the country was a man's job. That thinking often extended into sports. In 1961, the Amateur Athletics Union banned women from road races. The worry from fringe opposition: that a woman might run so hard, and so fast, her uterus could just fall out. But since the passage of Title IX in 1972, female participation in sports has increased more than 900%—and it seems that positive effect has spread to the political arena as well.
A 2013 study from the Women & Politics Institute found that women who played sports were 25% more likely to express political aspirations than those who did not. It certainly made a difference for Cheri Bustos (D., Ill.), who has been in the House of Representatives since 2013 and is currently seeking reelection. Bustos grew up in an "incredibly competitive neighborhood" with siblings who each received offers to play Division I sports: basketball for her sister, Lynn, and baseball for her brother, Dan. (Her father, Gene Callahan, was the lobbyist for Major League Baseball when Congress threatened to strip the league of its anti-trust exemption.) To earn a spot in pickup games, "you had to prove yourself, every single day," Bustos says. That competitiveness fueled her at Illinois College, a Division III school in Jacksonville, where she played volleyball and basketball, and propelled her into politics—another competitive arena.
Bustos isn't the only female former athlete on the campaign trail. Susana Mendoza, who was all-conference in soccer at Northeast Missouri State, is running for Illinois comptroller. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.), who's up for reelection, was on the ski team at Penn State, while her colleague Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) played tennis and squash at Dartmouth. Gillibrand told The Times that sports "took the fear out of losing."
Gillibrand and Bustos formed a friendship through the Congressional Women's Softball Team, which plays the Washington Women's Press Corps every June in a game benefitting the Young Survival Coalition. (Gillibrand is one of the team's pitchers; Bustos plays shortstop.) They are also tennis partners, often playing singles matches in the morning before work. It was during that time, in multiple conversations over the net, that Gillibrand, a passionate advocate of sexual assault prevention and education, persuaded Bustos to join her in working to address campus sexual assault. They've both been vocal supporters of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act.
"At practice, you're talking about everything: Your family, your kids, legislation," Bustos says. "I've built close enough relationships with people there that it's led to me to crossing the aisle legislatively and do things that were good for our country."
It's because of softball practice, Bustos says, where women show up in sweats, with no makeup—"in our raw form!" she laughs—that she built a friendship with Rep. Kristi Noem (R., S.D.), a pitcher and outfielder on the team. Both represent rural districts where biofuels play an important role in the local economy. Noem and Bustos led a bipartisian effort with 30 members of Congress urging the EPA to rethink its new renewable fuel standards.
Include women with a background in high school athletics, and the field gets deeper. Katie McGinty, a Democratic candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania, is a hoops junkie from Philadelphia, where, she says, "you either played basketball on concrete courts, or you stayed home." In one campaign commercial this fall she explains how work on the hardwood translates to politics
"If you're in it to actually solve problems and get stuff done, politics is absolutely a team sport," McGinty told SI.com. "That ability to not only get the ball, but understand who to pass and hand it off to, it directly parallels to knowing someone on the right committee, when you might need help persuading three other people to get on board with you; that teamwork helps you bring it across the finish line."
Denise Juneau, a Montana Democrat who will become the first Native American woman in Congress if she wins her race, grew up playing basketball on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Val Demings, the first female chief of the Orlando Police Department, is running for Congress as a Democrat. She credits high school track for developing her tireless work ethic.
The proliferation of female athlete-candidates isn't a surprise to Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY's List, which recruits and endorses progressive female candidates. "[Politics] is still very much male driven," Schriock says, "but more and more you see women athletes who benefitted from Title IX who are willing to take risks and run for office, who like the competition and have the leadership skills."
That makes sense to Amanda Renteria, a Stanford graduate who walked on to both the Cardinal basketball and softball teams in the 1990s. Athletes are terrific candidates, Renteria says, because they know the value of teamwork and understand that there's no time to stew after defeat. That's why, after losing a 2014 House race in California, Renteria went to work for Hillary Clinton and is now her political director.
Athletics inspired Renteria's boss too. Clinton wrote in her memoir, Living History, that she decided to run for the Senate after she attended an event to promote an HBO special about women in sports called Dare to Compete and a plucky 17-year-old issued a challenge to her. "Sofia Totti, the captain of [the Lab School's] basketball team, introduced me. As I went to shake her hand, she leaned toward me and whispered in my ear: 'Dare to compete, Mrs. Clinton. Dare to compete.'"
Clinton got in the game. Now, who's the next woman up?