In recent decades, professional athletes like Dave Bing, Kevin Johnson and J.C. Watts have successfully made the transition from playing field to political arena. What makes them appealing to voters and how do they fare once in office? Nicholas Coburn-Palo, who will receive his Ph.D. in political science this weekend, addressed those questions in his dissertation. 

Nicholas Coburn-Palo: “In a world where celebrity politics is coming at us and we can’t avoid it, are there some elements of real democratic thought and deliberation that might be going on?”
Nicholas Coburn-Palo “In a world where celebrity politics is coming at us and we can’t avoid it, are there some elements of real democratic thought and deliberation that might be going on?”
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — It’s been said that success in politics depends on how well those involved play the game. That sentiment has taken on new meaning in recent of years as professional athletes have run for — and won — elected office. How and why these athletes are able to make the transition from the playing field to the political arena are questions Nicholas Coburn-Palo sought to answer in his dissertation, A Tale of Two Mayors: Dave Bing, Kevin Johnson and the Rise of Athletes-Turned-Politicians. Coburn-Palo will receive his doctorate in political science during this weekend’s Commencement ceremony.

A lifelong sports fan, Coburn-Palo first became interested in the subject of athletes-turned-politicians when, as a high school teacher in Minnesota, he saw many of his colleagues turn out on election day to vote former wrestler Jesse Ventura into the governor’s office. It reminded Coburn-Palo of a similar case a few years earlier when former football player J.C. Watts was elected to Oklahoma’s House of Representatives. Since then, several other former athletes have entered politics in highly publicized races.

“I thought there might be something about the narrative of modern athletes and the skill set they get under the hot lights of the Internet and Twitterdom and everything else. I wanted to see, in a world where celebrity politics is coming at us and we can’t avoid it, are there some elements of real democratic thought and deliberation that might be going on behind this? And that got my inquiry kicked off,” Coburn-Palo said.

Coburn-Palo used the cases of Dave Bing and Kevin Johnson, former NBA point guards who went on to serve as the mayors of Detroit and Sacramento, respectively, as the framework for his analysis.

According to Coburn-Palo, certain characteristics of athletes automatically make them more electable in the eyes of the public, such as name recognition and the ability to fund their own campaigns with the millions they’ve made playing sports. But perhaps most importantly, Coburn-Palo pointed out, is the halo effect.

“The way sports has always been packaged in our country is a hero and villian storyline. If you can fall into the right side of that narrative, it can really work for you,” Coburn-Palo said.

Adding to that is the authenticity that live media coverage of sporting events gives players.

“Athletes perform in real time, and in an era when politicians aren’t trusted by people and are seen as unable to fulfill campaign promises, to see people perform under genuine pressure, unscripted, and rise to the occasion makes a strong statement.”

Athletes going into politics are using that media coverage to their advantage more than ever before, Coburn-Palo said. When Dave Bing was running for office, he did all he could to separate himself from his athlete persona, hoping that voters would focus on the strides he made in the business world after leaving the basketball court. This “first-wave” approach, differs vastly from that of Kevin Johnson, who embraced his role as an athlete, posing for pictures, signing autographs and even calling on famous players like Shaquille O’Neal to take the attention off of controversy he faced while in office. Johnson is representative of a “second-wave” athlete-turned-politician — athletes who use their celebrity to their advantage rather than shy away from it.

Part of Coburn-Palo’s research takes a broader look at politics over the last century as more celebrities have entered the arena. The changing face of media in recent decades has helped drive acceptance of recognizable faces running for office. But Coburn-Palo’s analysis points all the way back to the turn of the century, when Theodore Roosevelt attended the Progressive Party’s convention to accept his nomination, as a turning point in the mindset of American voters.

“For the first time, this was the person being placed over the platform, and that opened the door for others running for office to say to voters, You might not trust politicians, you might not believe their promises, but you know me, you’ve seen my story and you’re familiar and comfortable with it,” Coburn-Palo said.

More recently, with the rise of ESPN and other networks dedicated to 24-by-7 sports coverage, sports have been given a unique place of prominence in American culture, while at the same time subjecting athletes to an intense level of media scrutiny. Coburn-Palo said the spotlight shown on celebrity athletes can be good practice for political life.

“Every mistake or misstatement, you know you’re on the clock. There are very few areas outside of sports and politics that have that level of scrutiny,” Coburn-Palo said.

While there are many elements of the sports world that can prepare athletes for politics, Coburn-Palo also found that the very characteristics that make them so appealing to voters transfer less easily once they get into office. In the cases of Bing and Johnson, learning how to go from being the team leader to working well with a large group of constituents was not without challenges.

“Once you’re elected, you no longer hear the cheering crowd. Both Bing and Johnson, when they started their terms in office, assumed their team would look at them like the point guard and follow in line behind them. They forgot that in the world of politics, everyone has their own package of interests. For both Bing and Johnson that was a big transition,” Coburn-Palo said.

Realizing the team leader approach wasn’t working, Johnson in particular tapped into other skills honed on the court to overcome those obstacles.

“He stopped trying to work around the city council and instead cultivated it. I think the skills you get, particularly in a multicultural lockerroom, transfer extremely well if they can get past the ego of being an athlete and instead look at the team-building skills they took on while they were an athlete,” Coburn-Palo said.

Before Coburn-Palo’s paper, research on athletes-turned-politicians had been largely neglected. In this new age of politics, Coburn-Palo expects to see more athletes, and celebrities in general, successfully entering the political arena. Instead of fighting it, he said, it’s important to understand why.

“Sometimes it comes from a rejective impulse, an anti-deliberative democracy. But sometimes voting for a person and not a position is a democratic statement unto itself about the importance of character relative to policy positions. That’s a very encouraging moment and an opportunity to not just throw out celebrity politics, but to dig in a little bit deeper.”