American sports have always been a vast canvas upon which politicians can safely paint their personal theories of American life. Running for Congress and want to point out the abuses of management over labor? You can rail against the NFL’s decadeslong battle to hide the impact of concussions. Putting together a message of self-reliance and bootstrap Americanism? Point out the dozens of NBA players who grew up in poverty and turned playing careers into vast economic empires.
You have a story you want to tell, there’s some sports-related issue that you can use safely, concisely and usually to cheering crowds on the left and the right. So why are Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson and Jeb Bush striking out when it comes to using sports as a shortcut to the heart of the average voter? Because rather than seeing sports as a unifying activity that brings the fan, the team and the owners together, they want sports to be a signifier of their conservative street cred—a campaign plan that’s never really worked out well for anyone.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson is still relatively unknown among Southern GOP primary voters, so he decided to visit a camp for children with disabilities in North Carolina earlier this week. The fact that the camp was started by NASCAR legend Richard Petty wasn’t an accident. Carson’s team obviously was attempting to send the subtle signal to possibly hostile Southern voters that Carson was “one of them” and enjoyed hushpuppies, pork and NASCAR like all the rest. Since the Confederate flag is often flown at NASCAR races, Carson was asked by the Associated Press how he felt about the flag:
Carson remained reserved in his commentary, saying that individuals should continue flying the flag “if it’s private property and that’s what they want to do,” the newswire notes. …
“Swastikas are a symbol of hate for some people, too. And yet they still exist in museums and places like that,” Carson said. “If it’s a majority of people in that area who want it to fly, I certainly wouldn’t take it down.”
Please hold your condemnation and scorn until we take a stroll down an equally thorny lane with Jeb Bush. The former Florida governor went on Sirius XM’s newest sports-and-politics show The Arena and did an interview in which the subject of the Washington Redskins came up. When asked how he felt about calls to change the team name, since “redskin” is a racial slur against American Indians, Bush said the following, according to Mediate:
“I don’t think politicians ought to have any say in that to be honest with you,” Bush said. “I don’t find it offensive. Native American tribes generally don’t find it offensive.” …
“It’s a sport for crying out loud. It’s a football team,” Bush said. “Washington has a huge fan base. I’m missing something here I guess.”
There are plenty of analysts who can break down the moral failings or factual inaccuracies of these candidates’ statements, but we’re going to talk about commonsense campaign strategy. Yes, of course the Confederate flag is racist, and yes, flying it at a sporting event is one of the reasons NASCAR has trouble expanding its fan base (to people of all colors). But Carson has also said that a Muslim shouldn’t be president, so should anyone be surprised by this answer?
And Bush? This is a guy who a week ago said he was going to attract black voters by not offering “free stuff”—so again, is it any surprise that he can dismiss the significance of the Redskins naming issue by saying that he personally doesn’t find it offensive? I’m less shocked by the inherent racism in both of these candidates’ statements and more shocked that with all of the smart campaign consultants around them, they didn’t realize that these were easy sports and cultural layups that even Patrick Ewing couldn’t have missed.
Connecting yourself to sports is a great way to connect with voters and have them see you as a person and not just a “politician.” Plenty of studies have shown that political leanings are associated with which sports we enjoy. But at the same time, if political events, themes and stories are used effectively, a smart candidate can transcend ideology and connect with voters on a more visceral level. In other words, take stands on generic sports issues that everyone can agree upon, not on hot-button topics that will only pigeonhole you further.
For example, back in 2011, Ohio Gov. (and current 2016 GOP presidential candidate) John Kasich knew that Ohio voters were bitter at LeBron James for taking his talents to South Beach. So when the Dallas Mavericks beat the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, Kasich made the Mavericks “honorary Ohioans.” Then, this past year, when LeBron came back and took the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals, Kasich was right back to praising the King of Akron.
Say what you will about Kasich, but he at least understands the power of having a very popular, noncontroversial opinion on a once polarizing sports figure. Same with Donald Trump calling Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco “elite,” or Obama making jokes about “deflate-gate” in front of the New England Patriots.
Unfortunately, it seems as if Carson and Bush didn’t get the message. Carson should have punted on the Confederate-flag question. The flag isn’t so wedded to NASCAR that he needed to defend it, and anyone who loves the Confederate flag that much isn’t voting for a black Seventh-day Adventist from Detroit anyway. This wasn’t as bad a blunder as Mitt Romney’s some-of-my-best-friends-are-NASCAR-team-owners moment from 2012, but it’s a close second.
The same applies to Bush. Support for keeping the Redskins name actually runs across race and class, but the most intense supporters are often dyed-in-the-wool conservatives who prefer Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida or Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to, in their opinion, endangered RINO Bush anyway. All his statement did was portray him as an out-of-touch, possibly racist clod to the same moderate voters he’s been claiming he can pull.
A smart politician knows how to turn sly sports references into a bonding experience with voters, not a line marker regarding their politics. Maybe these two GOP contenders will figure it out eventually. But as of right now, it seems as if everyone else is taking the political sports upgrade while Jeb and Ben are sticking with cable.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.