Punting on Politics
At a rally in Richmond, Va., earlier this month, Donald Trump told a crowd of supporters, “Our country needs to see winners. We don’t see winners anymore.” With that, he launched a public courting for two Super Bowl champions to speak on his behalf at the Republican National Convention in July: Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.
“We’re going to do it a little different, if it’s OK,” Trump told the crowd. “I’m thinking about getting some of the great sports people who like me a lot.” While Brady and Roethlisberger are known acquaintances of Trump’s—their relationships with him were cultivated through golf—Brady has remained mum on the possibility of stumping while Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette he won’t attend the convention or endorse any candidate.
As the NFL breaks for summer vacation, I wanted to explore what role, if any, NFL players will have in the 2016 election. The informal polls I took suggest minimal engagement.
“Typically, we advise our athletes to shy away from discussing politics, religion or finances,” says Denise White, CEO of the marketing and branding agency EAG, which counts two dozen NFL players as clients. “But this year I’ll tell my guys: ‘I don’t care who you are voting for, keep it to yourself.’ It’s not the right climate to be aligning yourself with either candidate, considering how polarizing both Trump and Hilary [Clinton] are.”
Athletes haven’t always shied away from politics. In 1928, presidential hopeful Al Smith featured Jack Dempsey, Arnold Horween and Lou Gehrig on campaign posters. Vince Lombardi endorsed John F. Kennedy; Wilt Chamberlain spoke out for Richard Nixon. But the landscape started changing around the mid-1980s when athletes began marketing themselves as commodities. In 1990, Michael Jordan famously refused to endorse Harvey Gantt, the black Democratic mayor of Charlotte who was running against noted racist Jesse Helms for a U.S. Senate seat. Jordan’s enduring quote: “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
“Sports figures are often beloved because they offer us a respite from things like politics,” says Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist and senior advisor on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. “So if you’re an athlete, and you choose a side politically, you’re setting yourself apart, potentially, from half of your fan base. Partisanship is very real. You’re involving yourself in political debates that are much more volatile than even the toughest playoff race.”
Adds White: “If you marry yourself with a candidate, you’re marrying yourself with every policy that candidate stands for, whether you agree or not. Think about Trump. He has pretty much offended every race and ethnic background. Why I would tell my guys to stay away from Trump: Even if you agree with something he says, you don’t know what’s next. We still don’t quite know what his policies are, or what group of people he will alienate.”
Golfer Jack Nicklaus and Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling campaigned for George W. Bush in 2004. The list of NBA and NFL players who publicly endorsed Barack Obama is extensive (even Jordan co-headlined a Barack Obama fundraiser in 2012). White said many of her clients supported Obama, and she felt comfortable with them doing so publicly. “It wasn’t just that he would be the first black president,” White said. “It was his outlook for the country, his policies, and that he was for the people, not just for minorities. We knew where he stood, and if my guys felt strongly about that, we told them to go for it and helped them get behind him.”
“Campaigns do seek out athletes,” says Madden. “Because the best athletes are associated with all the attributes you’re acutely attaching to your candidate: winning, determination, reliability, relatability.”
Trump, especially, has aligned himself with sports figures—or at least tried to. “The core of Trump’s campaign has been his claim to super masculinity,” says University of Texas professor John Hoberman, who has written extensively on sports and politics. “He is campaigning as an alpha male. He has made repeated claims to be endorsed by athletes and he wants to be associated with these tough-guy athletes, because they validate that message.”
Trump’s attraction to Roethlisberger is natural. Says Madden: “A lot of what Western Pennsylvania identifies with Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers—gritty, blue-collar, work ethic—that’s gold for Trump.”
And yet Roethlisberger, who tends to be very private off the field, told reporters at minicamp, “I’m not getting into politics during my playing career.” It’s not just a media distraction, but a logistical one. The RNC is July 18-21, roughly a week before the Steelers open training camp. “Come this fall, it’s football season,” White says. “They’re out there playing, they’re not able to be on the campaign trail or appearing at rallies. And this year, they definitely shouldn’t be.”
Now on to your mail…
* * *
You can’t compare what John Fox did in Denver with Peyton Manning to what he might be able to do with Jay Cutler in Chicago. Cutler hasn’t done anything worthy of that comparison. GM Ryan Pace overhauled the defense with 10 new starters—that has never been a recipe for success or every team would do it. It’s a hand-in-the-air gamble. As for the Bears giving Cutler the “best opportunity to thrive,” come on, man. An untested, inexperienced office with oversight from a brand new offensive coordinator with a head coach who only finds success with an already proven HoF QB … hardly the best opportunity.
— C. Calving
The climate John Fox entered in Chicago is exponentially different than what he had in Denver. And in no way would I compare Cutler to Manning, nor did I. However, I believe Fox learned lessons from his four years in Denver that he’ll apply in his current job. For example, when Manning thrived in 2012—setting single-season franchise records for completion percentage (68.6), passer rating (105.9), passing yards (4,659) and TD’s (37)—Denver’s offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy, became one of the hottest head coaching candidates in the league (and was hired by the Chargers). The Broncos promoted then-quarterbacks coach Adam Gase because, as Fox told me, “he had a great relationship with Peyton”—and they didn’t want to tinker with a good thing.
Adam Gase went to Chicago with Fox, but is now the head coach in Miami. Cutler had the best season of his career in 2015, in a system that blended concepts from several influencers (West Coast, deep shots, play action) that Gase had tailored to Cutler’s strengths. Wouldn’t you know it: Gase became the hot head-coaching job candidate. The Bears did exactly what the Broncos did three years ago: They promoted from within, which Fox was smart to do.
As for the defensive overhaul: Most teams don’t endure such voluminous turnover in such a short timeframe. However, Pace brought in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who flipped the unit from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base. With a drastic switch in defensive philosophy, Pace needed players who could fit that scheme.
* * *
My question is with respect to Dirk Koetter’s comments. Specifically, I would propose that he should be fired on the spot if he's really going to coach that way—doing what he knows to be “mathematically wrong” because a) he wants to avoid criticism and b) he wants to justify a sunk cost (the previous draft pick). That mind-set reflects fear, not leadership, and if I were the owner I'd have some hard questions for my new HC. Is this mind-set widespread in the NFL? No wonder guys like Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick— who couldn't care less about media reaction—win at an extraordinarily high rate.
— Dan Breen
The worn adage is that the NFL is a copycat league, but oftentimes I find it to be a groupthink league. You can find examples at almost every level. Consider each year a crop of “hot coaching candidates” sprouts, and every team with a vacancy scrambles to woo them. These candidates are almost always an excellent play-caller who transformed a once-middling offense or defense. Their hiring would be considered a “win” for the fan base (last year’s group: Adam Gase, Hue Jackson, Ben McAdoo). Rarely do teams deviate from this mold, and when they do (Titans; Mike Mularkey) they are instantly criticized. The common theme here is risk-aversion. It’s a transient league in terms of employment. Anytime someone deviates from status quo (think of Chip Kelly’s wholesale changes in Philadelphia) they become vulnerable.
Last year, the only team to regularly incorporate the two-point conversion was the Steelers (they went for two 11 times, compared to 34 extra-point attempts), though it seemed Mike Tomlin’s rationale was swayed by the team’s kicking woes. Until a team takes the plunge and proves that going for two is sustainably effective, expect everyone to keep on kicking, just as they always have.
* * *
Having lived in Chicago since 1999, Chicago-style “pizza” is an abomination. Try Piece in Bucktown or Little Pops out in Naperville. Both have very good East Coast pizza.
— Jake Schmidt
As a kid who grew up in Chicago (the city part), I thought it my duty to explain away some misconceptions about Chicago pizza. Yes, most Chicagoans don’t have a problem with tourists thinking that Chicago pizza is deep-dish or stuffed. But Chicago pizza, for Chicagoans, depends on which neighborhood you live in. I grew up on the Northwest Side (Irving Park). Our neighborhood pizzeria (also Italian restaurant) was La Villa. They serve thin crust pizza. The ingredients, especially the sausage, make it outstanding. To me, Chicago pizza is La Villa Pizza.
There are some neighborhoods where deep-dish is the neighborhood style. So it's not limited to my neighborhood joint. Some have super thin crust, too. So I hope you get the idea. For what it's worth... maybe not much...
I knew my pizza take was going to get some reaction, but I was completely taken aback by the emails, Twitter comments and Facebook messages. Thank you, Jake and David, among many others, for recommending new spots. And I’m totally fine with still being called a tourist. I suppose I deserve that from basing my review on Lou Malnati’s and slices from four other unmemorable establishments. No, I have not yet been to Peaquod’s, but according to my offended Chicago friends, that will change soon. Also, I’d like to make an amendment to my initial review, when I said that deep-dish should be called a calzone. The more appropriate comparison is a quiche.
* * *
Emily, when you say Tom Brady should admit to something, you are either assuming he actually deflated the footballs (does any rational person equipped with the facts still think this?) or you think he should lie. Not a tenable position.
— Joe McKenney
Thanks for your note, Joe. This is one of a few letters I received on this topic, and I understand your point. Perhaps I was a bit limiting in my stance here: When I say Tom Brady should admit to something—“anything” as I phrased it—I’m not saying he has to tell the NFL he orchestrated a grand scheme to deflate balls. And if he didn’t orchestrate such a scheme, or even deflate balls at all, then obviously he should not lie. I know Brady reportedly made a “generous” settlement offer which the NFL turned down in May, though terms of that offer were never made public, nor was the rationale by the league for turning it down. What I’m saying here is this: Brady is almost drained of legal recourse. The type of appeal he is seeking is rarely granted. While the NFL may have had some incentive to budge last year, they certainly don’t now. If Brady wants to find any way to reduce his four-game suspension, he should revisit whatever he was going to offer back then. I don’t know what it was, but it could help reduce the four-game suspension.
* * *
How do you top the Mandy Moore “Candy” video, the “Gleason” trailer, and a dis at Chicago deep-dish?
The priceless Adieu Haiku!
Thanks for the note, Dave. I was scared only four readers might get the Mandy Moore “Candy” video reference. I’m glad you were one of them.
• Question? Comment? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org