Politics invade sports

Kevin Houser’s epiphany came about a month ago, as he and his wife prepared to cast their Ohio absentee votes for president.

He wondered to himself whether his teammates wouldn’t vote because they found the process of applying for an absentee ballot intimidating.

So, Houser offered his assistance. “I said, ‘Anybody who wants it, come talk to me,'” he said.

Houser, the New Orleans Saints’ long snapper, wound up helping 18 of his teammates obtain absentee ballots from various states. In doing so, he helped bring the Saints into the political conversation that has roiled the nation.

With the presidential election Tuesday, the same issues that have cleaved the country into edgy blue and red have made their way into NFL locker rooms.

For the most part, players argue their preferences for President Bush or Sen. John Kerry good-naturedly. But not always.

“It gets angry at times,” says Cleveland Browns wide receiver Frisman Jackson, a Kerry supporter. “It’s gotten heated sometimes, especially when somebody is really a diehard one way or the other.”

While it’s hard to gauge where the majority of current players come down on the left-right spectrum, the President and the Republicans seem to enjoy a clear advantage among retired NFL stars.

Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway and Bart Starr have introduced Bush at rallies. Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann spoke at the Republican National Convention, and the Illinois Republican Party briefly but very publicly courted former Bears head coach Mike Ditka to run for the U.S. Senate.

Kerry does have the public support of Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris.

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan and Lions coach Steve Mariucci have appeared at Bush rallies. (A Lions spokesman says Mariucci “isn’t publicly supporting any candidate” and appeared at the rally largely because it took place at his alma mater, Northern Michigan University.)

While the evidence is only anecdotal, kickers and punters seem to support the President almost unanimously.

“You know us weird kickers,” said Browns kicker Phil Dawson, a Bush supporter. “We’re always on the side, doing our own thing.”

Dawson has supported Bush since Bush was the governor of Texas and Dawson was “a little political science major” in Austin. Dawson’s wife, Shannon, sang at Bush’s gubernatorial inauguration.

“I think he’s a man of his word,” Dawson said. “Given the hand he’s been dealt with I think he’s done a tremendous job. Most of his issues, I just find myself in agreement with. I think our national defense, the fight on terrorism is our No. 1 priority.”

Jackson says that most Cleveland players share Dawson’s views. Negative ads and articles critical of Kerry have wound up in Jackson’s locker.

“I’m one of the few (Democrats) in my locker room,” he said. “I’m fighting a hard battle … I debate with the two kickers (Dawson and punter Derrick Frost). I try to watch CNN and read the daily newspapers to try and convince people to come to my side, to the left.”

Dawson laughed when told that Jackson suspected him and Frost of putting campaign paraphernalia in Jackson’s locker.

“I have participated in some of that, there’s no doubt,” Dawson said. “But Frisman is a smart guy. If he’s presented with the truth, he might change his mind. I had to sit through Fahrenheit 9/11 and all that stuff, so he can read a few articles.”

Among the issues that have gotten players’ attention is Kerry’s plan to roll back Bush’s tax cuts for people making more than $200,000 a year. Many players are among those people.

“If I saw John Kerry on the street, I’d say, ‘John, you do something about that, and we can talk about my vote,'” joked Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs, who is still undecided.

Saints star running back Deuce McAllister still plans to vote for Kerry despite some misgivings about the tax rollback.

“My idea of it is, if it helps, I can’t be selfish,” McAllister said. “If it helps more than myself, I’m obviously for it. … I can be selfish and say ‘Leave my money alone,’ but looking out for the long term and looking out for everybody’s sake, that’s not really the mind-set you should have.”

In Washington, the Redskins have more than a passing interest in the election’s outcome. Since 1936, every time the Redskins have won their last home game before the presidential election, the incumbent party has won the election. Every time the Redskins have lost, the party out of power has won.

That means the Packers’ 28-14 victory Sunday should bode well for Kerry.

Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot will vote for Kerry on Tuesday, and even held out tongue-in-cheek hopes that his native Mississippi – more crimson than Alabama’s Tide on the electoral map – could somehow turn for the Massachusetts senator. But Smoot would be happier to convert a couple of his burgundy and gold teammates to his side.

The hardest nut to crack?

“Probably Brunell.”

Across the hallway at Redskins Park last week, quarterback Mark Brunell was professing neutrality. But Brunell had let his presidential preference slip earlier in the week when someone told him that Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards had declared himself a Packers fan because of the presidential streak.

“Obviously, the Redskins are not John Edwards’ favorite,” Brunell replied. “And he’s not my favorite, either.”

Other players, such as Saints safety Steve Gleason, have paid close attention to the election and the issues, but have yet to make up their minds.

Gleason, a special teams ace with a Mohawk, conversant about topics from bio-diesel fuel to monetary reform, has observed both major candidates with increasing despair.

“Neither of them are really talking about things that I’m talking about,” he says. “Both of them seem to be in favor of corporations, big corporations. Both of them have been advocates of continuing the war, which are two things that I’m not in favor of.”

NFL players who can vote in their team’s hometowns really don’t have an excuse for not voting. Tuesdays are almost universally off-days for players around the league, giving most plenty of time to exercise their franchise as well as their biceps and quads.