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Monday, October 29, 2012
Athletes make views known this election season

By Jane McManus

Earlier this year, Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz filmed a video in support of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign. It started out with a quick analogy between sports and voting, and then the man who made the salsa an end zone dance spoke directly to his voting bloc.

"Being half Latino, it's been a long time since we've actually had a voice like this and had someone that really cares about the Latin community," Cruz said, "and we need to get out there and let our voice be heard."

Meanwhile across New York, Jets owner Woody Johnson told Bloomberg TV he'd rather see his candidate Mitt Romney win, even if it was a choice between Romney and a winning Jets season.

"Well I think you always have to put country first," Johnson said. "So I think it's very, very important that for, not only us but in particular for our kids and grandkids, that this election come off with Mitt Romney and [Paul] Ryan as president and vice president."

Even if he broke 1,000 Jets fans' hearts, Johnson has a point: On Nov. 6, citizens across the country will take part in a process that defines what it means to be an American. And for some athletes, coaches or owners, who normally won't get into any discussion more controversial than a disputed call, it means deciding where your public life as a sports personality and your private life as a voter intersect.

Political communications consultant Risa Heller said being politically minded can expand the way an audience views an athlete.

"For a long-term, brand-building exercise, it helps if they want to be seen as more substantive," Heller said. "For example Victor Cruz, it shows that he's not just an athlete; that he wants to be civic or politically inclined. That he's not just a football player."

For his part, Cruz lends Obama credibility and has the celebrity cachet that will engage potential voters more than, for example, a Spanish-speaking politician, Heller said.

Jets backup quarterback Tim Tebow has been outspoken when it comes to his faith, and did a Super Bowl commercial for Focus on the Family with his mother in 2010. By the Republican primary, Tebow said more than one candidate had requested his endorsement, but he declined.

Last week, asked if his endorsement had again been requested in the presidential race, Tebow smiled and said, "Possibly."

But he isn't ready to dive into that arena yet.

"I try to not go too public with that stuff yet in my career," Tebow explained. "I think with a lot of stuff you're learning where you are, where you fall with, not the moral belief, but other stuff. And you just try to figure everything out.

"You want to believe in candidates and when you support someone, you're not always going to agree with someone 100 percent but you want to have a lot in common with them. And when I do [endorse someone] I want it to be something I can put my word behind."

Heller thinks Tebow's endorsement could be valuable someday. He has the respect of many of his fellow Christians, who are also a part of his fan base. Whatever view he takes would likely be in concert with that belief, and heard by those fans.

"That's an important audience for the Republicans," Heller said.

Not every athlete or owner wants to risk alienating fans by raising a political voice. There could be consequences related to endorsements or, as Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo found out, a local political figure might write a letter to your boss.

Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. was so offended by Ayanbadejo's support of same-sex marriage he wrote a letter to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti saying: "Many of your fans are opposed to such a view and feel it has no place in a sport that is strictly for pride, entertainment and excitement."

The most complete dismantling of Burns' missive came from Vikings kicker Chris Kluwe. He wrote a profane, point-by-point rebuttal that was both shocking and funny. Since then he has weighed in on several controversial issues, and debated an empty chair in opposition to Clint Eastwood's imaginary discussion with Obama.

Like Kluwe, Ayanbadejo isn't going to be quiet. He said he hasn't been advised by either his agents or friends to tone down his views so as not to lose fans.

"No I haven't, even though I know it's a reality," Ayanbadejo said in an email. "But I feel like if it's not bringing me endorsements then they are not brands I would want to align myself with."

It's harder in the age of social media to remain quiet. If you follow athletes and were online during any of the presidential or vice presidential debates, it was easy to see who they were supporting.

For example:

"I read all the tweets about women binders and just heard that segment. Much ado about nothing," Cardinals kicker and noted conservative Jay Feely tweeted after the second debate.

Philadelphia quarterback Mike Vick, a polarizing figure whose support might not exactly boost a candidate, took the other side with an understated: "Obama #FourMoreYears."

Texans running back Arian Foster threw his support behind the moderator of the second presidential debate, Candy Crowley: "I'm voting for candy."

Twitter is a two-way street, and athletes might be challenged by the fans who love to watch them compete. By using that social media platform, athletes can get feedback, and PGA Tour player Rickie Fowler apparently got some negative responses to his endorsement.

"Funny how people will unfollow me just because I support Romney...seems smart...made my pick...make yours and vote," Fowler tweeted.

Heller said for all the reasons athletes could get into politics, this is the one big reason to stay out.

"There's a reason people say you shouldn't talk about politics at the dinner table," Heller said. "Politics are polarizing. An athlete who relies on fans probably doesn't want to polarize people."

WNBA player Swin Cash welcomes feedback. She sparked a conversation by engaging fans during the second debate. Cash wrote, "My tweeps that feel Romney won tell me why? I don't judge, we can agree to disagree :) talk to me..."

In fact, Cash has kept up the tweeting. During the third debate, she noted Obama wore a pink bracelet in support of breast cancer awareness.

Hayden Smith, a tight end from Australia on the Jets' practice squad, said Americans are much more upfront with their political views than athletes in his home country. He said players have spent the past month debating issues like tax policy in the locker room.

"I think in general America as a society is a lot more open to talking about politics," Smith said.

Clearly, it's spilled out of the locker room, as well. One refrain both Romney and Obama supporters tend to agree on is the obligation to vote if you are eligible on Nov. 6.

"Many people died and continue to die for us to have these freedoms," Ayanbadejo said. "Even if you don't like any of the candidates, go vote and write your grandma's name in."