Commentary

Nolan Ryan's endorsement

With Texas native's stature, political ads unlikely to adversely affect Rangers

Updated: August 1, 2012, 9:15 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

It's a decent bet that at least a thousand Texas politicians -- from school board to governor -- have sat down at brainstorming meetings with their campaign crew and said, "Wouldn't it be great if we could get Nolan Ryan to endorse us?"

And then, equally predictable, everybody would laugh.

[+] EnlargeTed Cruz and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst
AP Photo/LM OteroTed Cruz, left, beat David Dewhurst, whom Nolan Ryan endorsed, in the Republican Senate primary.

But just the other day I was driving to the store roughly 1,700 miles from Texas listening to a Rangers game -- MLB At Bat: mankind's greatest invention? -- when a commercial caught my attention. Ryan was speaking, but not about baseball. He started in on the decision facing Texans in Tuesday's Senate primary, and then he said, "I am supporting a proven conservative leader, David Dewhurst."

Clearly, a famous Texan officially endorsing the more moderate of two Republican candidates isn't a shocking development. But Ryan is the president of the Texas Rangers, and current athletes and sports executives rarely wade into the churning waters of official political endorsement. There's too much to lose, not enough to gain. The same goes for non-sports businesses, I guess; ask the folks who run Chick-fil-A about that one.

And that's why Ryan's endorsement was somewhat jarring. I couldn't remember hearing or seeing a sports figure, one actively involved in either running a team or playing for one, appear on an official campaign spot for a candidate.

More than anyone, sports businessmen and athletes depend on the perceived neutrality of their views to protect their individual brands. When you're dependent on endorsements -- the real ones, the ones that pay -- to supplement an already bloated income, there's no upside to taking a political stand that may alienate half of the people who drink Gatorade or buy Chevrolets. Muhammad Ali became a relic as soon as Michael Jordan figured out how to use bland platitudes and a blank slate of values to maximize profit. The modern athlete and his agent know the central tenet of the business: No corporate exec wants an unpredictable rabble-rouser as the face of his company.

Jordan issued the most famous -- and famously succinct -- word on the matter after he twice refused to endorse former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt in his Senate races against noted bigot Jesse Helms. When asked why he wouldn't support a Democratic African-American mayor against Helms, Jordan said, "Republicans buy sneakers, too."

It's a symbiotic relationship: No corporation wants to worry about the wayward political beliefs of its celebrity-athlete endorsers, and no athlete or sports executive wants to have his name associated with a loser. It can serve as a sobering ego-burst if -- like David Dewhurst on Tuesday -- the endorsed candidate doesn't win. The cut might be deeper for an athlete whose ego is in full bloom, but it's unlikely that Ryan, a man who is sufficiently comfortable in his own skin, feels particularly shaken by Dewhurst's loss to Tea Party upstart Ted Cruz. (The main criticisms about Dewhurst, whose views were remarkably similar to Cruz's, centered on his willingness to entertain the idea of compromise with his opponents. In the end, that may have done him in.)

Ryan declined to comment on the endorsement, but Rangers spokesman John Blake wrote in an email, "Nolan has endorsed political candidates in the past. He does this in his position as Nolan Ryan, private citizen and Texas businessman and rancher, not as Nolan Ryan, CEO and President of the Rangers. His political endorsements have never been associated with or been a reflection on the Rangers organization and he has made certain this is not the case."

[+] EnlargeRyan
AP Photo/ Bill NicholsRangers fans undoubtedly care more about whether Nolan Ryan's pitchers are winning than his candidates.

(It's true that Ryan never mentions baseball or the Rangers, but the contention seems to ignore one fact: The video version of Ryan's endorsement uses Rangers Ballpark in Arlington as the backdrop. The linkage to the Rangers seems more obvious than implied.)

Ryan's endorsement posed little, if any, risk to the Rangers. Nolan Ryan can do whatever he wants. It's not often that a man has been as closely associated with a place as Ryan is with Texas. Had he wanted, he probably could have run against Cruz and won the damned thing himself, cutting out the middleman.

Many athletes endorsed Obama in '08, but they were unofficial, individual endorsements, separate from the campaign. Curt Schilling endorsed John McCain, again unofficially, and the recent revelations of government subsidies and loans (unpaid) to Schilling's failed gaming company have served to exemplify the dangers of an opinionated but self-serving athlete jumping into the political realm without a complete understanding of ... well, many things, not least of which is the meaning of the word hypocrisy.

But given the popularity and profile of our top athletes, it's surprising that more politicians don't go out of their way to enlist their services. Athletes are always at the top of the list for corporations seeking product endorsements, so why not political? Both sides are vain, almost by professional necessity, so it seems like a perfect fit. All the bad metaphors athletes use in endorsing products -- "hit a home run with Downtown Ford" -- could easily translate to politics. Perhaps the Jordan Rule still rules.

Nolan Ryan put himself out there for David Dewhurst, and it didn't work out. Realistically, Ryan probably didn't sway the vote either way, and his endorsement doesn't figure to have much impact on the Rangers' attendance or public perception. Ryan is still the rancher/flamethrower/franchise savior Texans love.

And his reputation? Well, it's more contingent on the results of Ryan Dempster's first start than David Dewhurst's Senate defeat. You've got to believe Nolan knew that going in.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com