Jeff Pearlman

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$ports execs and the political reality of their votes

Woody Johnson probably doesn’t spend all that much time in Belle Glade, Florida.

The owner of the New York Jets is, after all, a multi-millionaire; one who inherited Johnson & Johnson from his father and who, in 1996, paid $635 million for an NFL franchise. When he travels, Johnson usually does so either by limousine or chartered jet. He owns multiple residences, invests in myriad holdings, dabbles in various businesses.

Belle Glade, meanwhile, is one of America’s poorest cities, home to a median family income of $17,000 and a rotting sugar industry that has sapped the region of jobs and, tragically, hope. To grow up in the vast projects of Belle Glade isn’t to grow up with a couple of obstacles. It’s to grow up sans options. To the people of Belle Glade, there are no dreams of college campuses and high-level CEO positions and happily ever after.

There just … is.

This is the hometown of Jets receiver Santonio Holmes.

I am assuming Johnson has never visited Holmes’ neighborhood because, had he, there’s no way he would be throwing his support behind Mitt Romney’s presidential bid. After all, how can one stand in line at the Dixie Fried Chicken on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and back a candidate (and a party) who insists raising the minimum wage would damn the economy? How can one pass one of the endless strings of abandoned homes and back a candidate (and a party) who decided it would be best not to try and stop the foreclosure process; that people would be better served to let it run its course and hit the bottom? Lastly, how can one look at the people of Belle Glade—mostly black, mostly impoverished—and, with no sense of irony, back a candidate (and a party) who extols of the ideal of so-called “trickle down economics”; who tells the poor, hey, if the wealthy are taken care of, you’ll be taken care of, too; who demonizes and demeans welfare recipients as moochers of the American dream?

When Johnson recently stated that the importance of a Romney victory trumped that of a Jets’ victory, he evoked the ire of many Gang Green loyalists. His words, however, also gave the public a glance into one of the best-kept secrets of American professional sports: Namely, while team owners and executives depend on the performances of thousands of athletes from rough and poor upbringings, they routinely back candidates who, quite frankly, could give two damns of their plight.

Just look at the numbers. According to a recent study by WNYC, among NFL owners the top three political donors (Miami’s Stephen Ross, Houston’s Robert McNair and Johnson) have given a combined $311,600 to the Republican campaigns. Eight of the 10 NBA owners who have contributed to a presidential candidate handed their money to Romney. In baseball, Gregory Maffei of the Atlanta Braves and Robert Castellini of the Cincinnati Reds, the top two political donors in the sport, have exceeded $200,000 in GOP (and Romney) donations, according to the WNYC report. Just recently Castellini, according to baseball insiders, was livid when his manager, Dusty Baker, spoke out in support of President Obama.

Shortly after Johnson’s endorsement, Romney also received the nod from John Elway, the legendary Denver Broncos quarterback who now serves as the franchise’s executive vice president of football operations. The Hall of Famer called Romney a “proven leader with the experience and background to turn around our struggling economy,” in a statement on Tuesday. “In these tough economic times,” he said, “we need a president who understands how to get America working again—by standing on the side of taxpayers and small-business owners who do the real job creating.”

As Elway spoke, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Demaryius Thomas, the team’s best wide receiver, was listening. When he was 12, Thomas watched as police in Montrose, Georgia arrested both his mother and grandmother on charges of trafficking cocaine. Both women have been in prison since 2000, and Thomas, 12 at the time, bounced from one low-income home to another before finally settling in with an aunt and uncle. In other words, he spent the majority of his life as one of the 47 percent.

As for Johnson’s Jets, among the team’s stars are running back Shonn Greene (raised by his grandparents, who worked multiple jobs), wide receiver Jeremy Kerley (brought up in a trailer), defensive end Quinton Coples (single mother who drove buses and clean houses to feed her kids) and cornerback Darrelle Revis (brought up in Alquippa, Pa., one of the most dangerous cities in America). New York’s players are, in many cases, men who overcame great odds; whose families often depended on vital government services ranging from Medicaid to food stamps to public housing.

Government services that, in a Republican dream land, would either be sliced apart or eliminated altogether.

Because they’ve been blessed with outrageous physical skills, professional athletes have gone on to lives featuring large incomes and fancy cars and glorious Sundays. They have, in effect, won a lottery ticket.

The communities that raised them, however, are rarely so lucky.

  • sanford

    Good piece, but if you watch Broke last week, most of them also blow all their money.

  • Bobby Fetter

    I really hate when sports figures (namely owners) inject themselves in political campaigns. I turn to watching sports to GET AWAY from politics. It’s also the only thing that Republicans and Democrats come together on. When I’m watching the Yankees at a bar or tailgating at a football game, politics never comes up. We boo and cheer and high five each other regardless of our political preference. It’s nice to escape for 3+ hours and not think about partisan politics, the deficit, wars, etc….Don’t these owners realize that when they take sides in politics, they literally alienate HALF of their fan base?

  • http://jeffpearlman.com Doug

    If Obama wins again, the entire country will look like Santonio Holmes neighborhood. The flaw in your emotional argument is none of the liberal economic policies actually work. They just don’t. Tearing down the economy and country will not improve the conditions in Belle Glade any more than tearing down the healthcare system will help healthcare. Might ease your guilty conscience but it won’t help anyone. Other than Obama phones poor people are doing far worse than the rest of the country. Creating jobs through economic growth, not through the government taking a dollar and turning it into 55 cents is the only way. Handing out welfare isn’t helping the people you are talking about in the long term, if it did improvement would be complete fifty years into this experiment. There are generations of people who have never had a role model who worked their ass off, and thats on liberal politicians who want to keep poor people on the government plantation for an automatic voting bloc. When the rich get richer, the poor get richer too. Unless your stuck collecting welfare with nobody to show you the way. Also, your minimum wage argument is flawed. If an employer can pay three people $2.50 an hour to have a job, learn the value of money and hard work it is better than only employing 1 person at $7.50 and having two others out of work, learning to live on the government dole.

    • Ted

      Doug, you are a dipshit.

    • Duncan Idaho

      A solid, well-thought argument sir. We all remember the terrible economy in the 90s due to liberal economic policies, not to mention the fact that the economy absolutely did NOT collapse in Bush’s second term.

      Wait…never mind, your argument is totally bogus.

  • SteveH

    Jeff, it’s been a while since I have visited, but some things never change. Doug is still an idiot.

    Doug, you know what’s funny, Jeff just gave you a handful of examples of kids that grew up in poor economic conditions. No doubt, those kids grew up on some form of public assistance.

    Now, they make millions of dollars of playing professional football. I’ll bet the taxes they pay in one year more than cover what they received in public assistance.

    My biggest gripe with the Republican party is their demonization of welfare recipients.

    It’s a strategy that works.

    Put the face of some African-American dude with gold teeth on welfare and the Republican base–you know, all those white people–get riled up about freeloaders waiting for a handout.

    I just lost a friend over this very issue.

    A week ago she posted on Facebook a graphic, no doubt created by some right wing extremist, lashing out at the “crack-smoking, Air Jordan wearing, lazy welfare recipient.”

    I grew up on welfare.

    My mother raised four children on her own.

    She grew up in a conservative Catholic household but got pregnant when she was 16. Then again when she was 17 and had me when she was 19. She also had a daughter a few years later. Yes, the father is the same.

    She never finished high school…neither did my father, but he wasn’t around.

    My mother worked two jobs. She worked part-time at the liquor store across the street from my house and she worked at the corner Lawson’s, which now is the Dairy Mart franchise.

    She had to walk to both jobs because she didn’t drive nor could she afford a car.

    I grew up on government cheese and bread. When she splurged we had spaghetti.

    Her boss at the liquor store allowed her to collect empty cans and bottles that were dropped off at the store so she could turn them in for the refund (it was five cents per can/bottle at the time).

    My mother today is 63 and she’s still working just as hard as she did then. She’s been a bartender for the past 25 years or so. She goes in early to clean the bathrooms for an extra $25.

    Her children?

    My oldest brother owns a decorating company and does quite well for himself. He lives in an upper income neighborhood, where the tax rate keeps out lower income homes.

    My second oldest brother is a vice president at a studio in Hollywood.

    Me, I’m an Army veteran and a productive member of society.

    My sister also works full time and pays her share of taxes, volunteers at her daughter’s school and does everything the Republican party expects her to do.

    I think between the five of us we have repaid our debt to society, many times over.

    Thing is, our story isn’t the exception. Although, Republicans won’t let you believe that. No, they want you to believe we’re handing out checks to people on the streets so they can run out and buy the new iPhone and Air Jordans.

    During my four years in the Army I met a lot of people like me. They came from poorer families and had few options. College was something we didn’t do, not just because we couldn’t afford it, but because we never had that expectation placed on us.

    I had a friend from Minnesota…somewhere outside Minneapolis. He was a big Sex Pistols fan and he loved his heavy metal. We traded “I grew up poor” stories like people do “Your momma is so fat” jokes.

    “Duke” was killed in Desert Storm. I’m pretty sure he repaid his debt to society.

    Ironically, he was killed when his Humvee crashed. I too crashed a Humvee, but it wasn’t in war. I was driving a colonel to the Shopette to pick up fried chicken. It was at night during a field exercise…we weren’t allowed to drive with the lights on. I’m not sure how much that colonel’s fried chicken would have cost, but the government picked up the tab on the Humvee. I guess he could have waited for his chicken.

    To my friend I lost over the Facebook post, I sent her some articles on the amount of food stamps that were used on military bases.

    In 2011, the number quadrupled. Over $88 million in food stamps was used on military bases in the United States last year.

    Doug, should we drop that benefit for our soldiers? Certainly you support the troops, just like all your Republican cronies?

    The military also has its own “food stamps program,” called the Family Subsistence Supplemental Allowance. In 2010, 510 service members qualified for the program at a cost of OVER $1,300,000.

    Now we’re at over $90 million in welfare benefits just for our troops.

    I’m pretty sure they all repay their debts to society.

    By the way, I’m white.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life