Pro sports figures more invested in this presidential campaign

In the presidential playoffs, pro sports figures have thrown down more cash on Republican John McCain, a former Navy boxer, than on Democrat Barack Obama, a younger pickup hoops player.

But it's a narrow spread compared to past elections in which Democratic candidates had few fans among sports pros.

Professional athletes and executives have given $445,334 to the two nominees -- 55.8 percent to McCain and 44.2 percent to Obama, according to ESPN analysis of figures from the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group. That includes donations during the current election cycle up to August.

"The sports industry would benefit from a sports-savvy president like John McCain," said Jeff Moorad, CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks and a donor to the McCain campaign. "He has shown over the last couple of years that he relishes the underdog role, and I'm confident that he'll end up in the right place when he reaches the finish line."

Professional sports figures have given twice as much money to all presidential candidates combined during this election than they have to candidates in each of the past two races. And almost two months of fundraising remain for the two nominees.

Candidates' popularity might be fueling part of the increase, especially among Obama supporters who are first-time donors.

Former Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani also had a strong sports appeal before he dropped out of the race in January. He cashed in a total of $210,900 from pro sports donors, including $86,300 from NASCAR employees and drivers and $17,000 from his hometown New York Yankees.

Some sports scholars said donors are more motivated by Capitol Hill's recent interest in steroids, spying and cheating in sports.

On the issue of performance-enhancing drugs alone, Congress has called representatives from the NFL, NBA, MLB and women's sports before the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee a total of seven times since 2005.

And don't forget all that humdrum rule-making for stadium financing, broadcast rights and union contracts. Even though it takes Congress to hammer out legislation for these issues, a presidential veto or approval is powerful leverage.

"It helps, in their minds, to be friendly with people in positions of power, whether it's for expansion in a market or just overall support of the sport or sports in general. It's not different than a lot of other special-interest groups," said Dave Czesniuk, director of operations for the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.

Sports economist Craig Depken said Republicans have tended to leave professional sports empires alone, whereas Democrats have pushed for more regulations.

"This is really the 'Leave Us Alone' coalition," said Depken, an associate professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. It's been harder lately, as the lines have blurred with both parties wanting to be involved in the action, especially when they start debating performance-enhancing drugs, he said.

Pro sports donors also have trusted conservative leaders to take fewer taxes out of their big paychecks, said sports scholars and donors themselves.

"I think everybody is quite aware that John McCain will be more inclined to keep taxes lower," said driver Jim Pace, a member of The Racer's Group who donated $500 to McCain in May. "Senator McCain is going to be more for less involvement, which then allows more opportunities for competitive sports."

The difference this election is that pro sports donors are more divided. In the past two presidential elections, the Democratic nominee has struggled to muster at most 16 percent of pro sports donations.

Race is clearly a factor for Obama's allure, as many African-American athletes have been drawn into his campaign, said sports agent and attorney Leigh Steinberg, who is forming a fundraising group called Athletes for Obama.

"Here we have a candidate who talks about hope and idealism, who is athletic and can actually post up in a game. And he's African-American," he said. "An African-American president … can inspire every young African-American student in the country that they're capable of doing everything and not just being athletes."

African-Americans account for about 8.2 percent of MLB players, 67 percent of NFL players and 76 percent of NBA players, according to the most recent figures from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.

Marvin Williams, a forward with the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, is studying for his degree in African-American studies during his offseason. He donated $1,000 to Obama's campaign last year.

"To see Obama become the first African-American president, that's huge. I never thought in my lifetime I'd have seen something like that," he said. "We have a chance to make history."

Chicago Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee and his family have donated $6,900 to the campaign.

"This is by far the most I've ever followed the presidential race. My family has really been into it," Lee said. "We've connected with Obama."

Lee said he was even going to try to catch parts of the Democratic National Convention on television.

Convention cameras spotted a few famous athletes in attendance, such as Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson (although at age 16, she's too young to vote), former basketball player Charles Barkley and former heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali. Craig Robinson, head basketball coach at Oregon State University, introduced his sister, Michelle Obama, on the convention's opening night.

Obama's speech at Invesco Field at Mile High stadium in Denver on Aug. 28 drew 84,000 people, more than the average attendance of about 76,600 for a Denver Broncos game.

Broncos tight end Nate Jackson wanted to attend as well, but he was in Arizona -- McCain territory -- preparing for the next day's preseason game against the Cardinals. Jackson, fresh off the field from a recent morning practice at Broncos training camp, said he's been an Obama supporter ever since he met the candidate at a fundraiser last year. Foreign policy concerns this football player.

"We shouldn't be shunning the rest of the world community. It's important not to isolate yourself from the world," said Jackson, who gave $500 to Obama's campaign in March. Then, standing outside the locker room while catching his breath, he closely quoted former President John F. Kennedy's edict, "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."

Jackson said he believes Obama would espouse that ideal by working to build consensus with other countries.

Lee, of the Cubs, said foreign countries would respect America more if it were to elect an African-American.

"Around the world, they think we're kind of an elitist country. We kind of just go around and think we're entitled to everything," he said. "If they saw a black president, it might change that perception."

Lee gave President George W. Bush credit for helping athletes by lowering their taxes and acknowledged that probably wouldn't happen in an Obama administration, "but it doesn't matter." Supporting Obama is the right thing to do, he said.

He said those who make more money should pay more taxes: "It helps our economy."

PGA golfer Joe Ogilvie sees McCain as a wiser investment. Ogilvie has a Duke University economics degree and plans to start his own investment firm after his season ends this fall.

"[McCain] knows how to operate around Washington. He is respected on both sides of the aisle," said Ogilvie, who gave $2,500 to McCain's campaign. "Obama has voted for and supports a big government and the expansion of government programs that are so bloated and inefficient that it will lead to further fiscal imbalances," he said.

Pace, the driver, boils it down: "It's the idea of less government and less intervention and fewer rules and regulations," he said.

Although McCain gets support from pro sports donors who trust him to fend off congressional meddling in their business decisions, the senator does have a history of speaking out in favor of drug testing in sports.

While at a campaign stop in Iowa in December, McCain blamed the Major League Baseball Players Association for getting in the way of measures that would help stop doping and suggested it "cooperate with meaningful, tough punishments and testing procedures so that we can prevent this from ever happening again," according to an Associated Press article.

In 2005 he sponsored legislation, which never became law, to require minimum drug-testing standards for major professional sports leagues.

"I know that he's passionate about his beliefs as they relate to performance-enhancing drugs and I think that, by and large, the industry is supportive of that position," said Moorad with the Diamondbacks, who, with his wife, has donated $6,900.

Moorad said baseball "would have a friend in the White House" with a McCain presidency.

"I've known John for several years now and have had an opportunity to interact with him, for the most part, around sports and sporting events," he said.

McCain has attended several Diamondbacks games along with his wife, Cindy McCain, who has a minority ownership stake in the club. Moorad said that when he saw Cindy at a game against the New York Mets earlier this summer, she handed him her cell phone. The senator was on the line from Washington.

"The first thing he said is, 'How about that Billy Wagner?'" Moorad said.

"He's a real fan and supporter. He rarely leaves before the last out."

One of McCain's staunchest advocates is Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who's currently recovering from shoulder surgery. Schilling recorded an endorsement video and donated $2,300 to the campaign in February.

Schilling did not respond to requests for an interview, but he wrote about McCain in a personal blog entry in March.

"I can't imagine a finer person now in position to become our next president," Schilling wrote. "He won't pander and you probably won't agree with everything he says, but I think he's a man that can be trusted to get this country back on its feet domestically, and abroad. I am proud to call him a friend."

McCain has lots of friends in the dugout, but his biggest fans are in football. Six of McCain's top 10 pro sports donors are with NFL teams, led by the San Diego Chargers, Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans. Chargers CEO Dean Spanos and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones also are among McCain's top fundraisers, helping bring in between $50,000 and $250,000 in donations by hosting parties or events at which they collect money from friends and associates. Both Spanos and Jones declined interviews.

McCain gets substantial hometown backing as well, with about $50,000 in donations coming from Arizona sports donors who work in pro baseball, football, basketball and hockey, as well as executives with the Fiesta Bowl college football venue in Tempe.

NBA staff topped Obama's list of pro sports donors at $24,360. No one in the NBA office was willing to talk, but Obama's ties to basketball are well known. He played for his high school team in Hawaii and still shoots hoops to stay in shape. A YouTube video of Obama's making a 3-pointer has been viewed almost a quarter-million times.

Oddly enough, Obama's second-largest pro sports donor is a Chicago-based table tennis company called Killerspin, whose owners and employees gave $13,800 to Obama's presidential campaign.

Ties between Killerspin owner Robert Blackwell Jr. and Obama came under fire after an April 27 Los Angeles Times article reported that in 2002, then-state Sen. Obama advocated for Killerspin to receive a $20,000 state tourism grant for a table tennis tournament. By 2004, the grants had totaled $320,000, according to records from the state of Illinois.

Blackwell, a longtime friend of Obama, previously had paid Obama to provide legal services to one of his other companies. And he donated $1,000 to Obama's U.S. Senate campaign. Both Blackwell and Obama's campaign deny any wrongdoing or conflict of interest.

"Barack wrote a letter of support because he was my state senator," Blackwell said. "This idea that Barack somehow had some quid pro quo just is silly."

The relationship aside, supporting table tennis isn't such a bad thing, Blackwell said. In fact, it was a world championship table tennis match between the United States and China that paved the way in 1972 for President Richard Nixon to become the first American president to visit China.

Obama's campaign declined to say whether the senator can wield a pingpong paddle.

Paula Lavigne is a reporter in the Enterprise Unit. Her work appears on "Outside the Lines."