Athletes sidestep political stances

Most put self-image ahead of capability to affect campaigns

November 06, 2006|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,Sun reporter

It has become a cliche.

Every election season, Hollywood stars throw themselves and their money behind political candidates and causes. They're generally a great fundraising source for Democrats and a fun punching bag for Republicans.

But what of athletes? They're as rich and famous as those who appear in movies and on television. But they haven't established a mass political identity.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article yesterday about political campaign contributions among local sports figures, two contributions by University of Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams were omitted. He gave $100 in 2003 and $500 in 2005 to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"If they fit a given race, you'll see them," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's center for politics. "But it's fair to say that as classes of celebrities go, they're less politically identified and less politically interested. I've taught some football players, and I wouldn't say they got up in the morning thinking about politics."

Neither do any of Maryland's leading players and coaches, according to federal campaign contribution records. The biggest names -- from Ray Lewis to Cal Ripken to Gary Williams -- have stayed out of this year's high-profile Senate and gubernatorial races here. The owners of local teams have made donations, and boxing promoter Don King has appeared on behalf of Republican Senate candidate Michael S. Steele. But that's about it. Current Ravens and Orioles players have kept their distance from politics.

Ripken's spokesman, John Maroon, said the Orioles legend has been approached for help by several candidates over the years. But he feels uncomfortable wielding his influence in an area where he's no authority.

"Generally, Cal's philosophy is that he's a citizen, but a baseball player and a businessman who's not an expert on all things political," Maroon said. "He doesn't feel he's any more qualified than anyone else to say if a candidate is good or not. So he keeps his political beliefs very private, and that is by design."

More politically oriented former players, such as NFL great Jim Brown, have chided Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods for not speaking out on behalf of causes and candidates.

Jordan once summed up his neutrality by saying, "Republicans buy sneakers, too."

But the former NBA great has become a donor in recent years. Perhaps recognizing a fellow star, he gave Democrat Barack Obama $10,000 during his successful Illinois Senate run in 2004.

Since Washington is the ultimate political town, perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Redskins give more than Ravens.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti gave $10,000 to the Republican National Committee in September, according to federal election records.

His Washington counterpart, Daniel Snyder, has given $44,200 to Republican organizers and candidates. Coach Joe Gibbs has given $6,200 to various Republicans, and quarterback Mark Brunell also has backed GOP candidates. Brunell and Snyder have contributed to Virginia Sen. George Allen's 2006 re-election campaign.

Owners are the most generous political donors in sports. Despite his wealth, Snyder is a relative lightweight in this respect.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos and his wife, Georgia, have given to many Democratic candidates over the years. Angelos has donated as much as $500,000 at once and more than $3 million overall to the Democratic National Committee and other party organizations.

But he made news last year when he held "Bob Ehrlich Day" at Camden Yards and posted huge banners reading "Thank You! Governor Ehrlich" on the warehouse. Despite that show of support, he had not fattened Ehrlich's campaign coffers as of the latest campaign filings.

Former Ravens owner Art Modell has donated $174,800, mostly to Republicans, over the years. This year in Maryland, he has given $4,200 to Democratic congressman C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger and $2,100 to Republican Steele.

Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin is a longtime Democratic backer who has given about $14,000 to Benjamin L. Cardin's Senate campaign.

Baltimore Blast owner Ed Hale has given $4,200 each to Cardin and Ruppersberger.

Local owners are dwarfed by the contributions of owners in other cities.

New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner has given $222,000, about 49 percent of that to Democrats, 27 percent to Republicans and the rest to various political causes. His Chicago White Sox counterpart, Jerry Reinsdorf, has spent more conservatively on baseball but less so on politics, distributing $362,203 to Democratic candidates (52 percent) and Republicans (32 percent.)

All three commissioners of the major sports are substantial donors. NBA chief David Stern is the leviathan of the bunch, having given $829,060, almost all of it to Democrats. Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue might have led a more profitable league but donated modestly by comparison, giving $27,751 (44 percent to Republicans, 29 percent to Democrats).

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has given $63,250, mostly to Democratic candidates. Ironically, Selig represented management (usually associated with Republicans) in baseball's labor wars. His chief foe, union chief Donald Fehr, has distributed 46 percent of his $19,756 in donations to GOP candidates.

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