For everyone that like's Mike.


Republicans buy sneakers too...

What sports star does not have his match-day superstition? Some will not shave. One wears a lucky charm, another dons the same undershirt for an entire season. A famous Yankees player used only to eat chicken before a game, and one English football manager is said to have made his players walk two miles to the stadium on match day, after it happened once when the team bus broke down and they played like a dream. Thus it is with Barack Obama. On election days, he has to play basketball.

He did in Iowa and South Carolina, when he played in pick-up games and won both votes. In New Hampshire and Nevada he did not – and lost both primaries to Hillary Clinton. Contrary to urban myth, he is not especially brilliant at the sport, despite some popular clips on YouTube. A keen Obama-watcher likens his prowess to that of "a moderate club tennis player" (though he did make a clutch three-pointer before the world's TV cameras during a visit to Kuwait this summer, when a goof might have destroyed the Obama legend).

But the superstition itself makes perfect sense. Indeed, it might be seen not as a superstition, but as the acknowledgement of a debt – a debt not so much to basketball as to American sport in general. For is it too fanciful to argue that without sport, or rather black sport, no one today would even be thinking of a President Obama?

Oddly, there has been no public parade of African American superstars coming out for Obama. A few have, most notably LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, hailed by some as the new Michael Jordan.

Among baseball players to nail their flag to the Obama mast is Jimmy Rollins, shortstop of the Philadelphia Phillies, who are poised to make their first World Series appearance in 15 years.

But there hasn't exactly been a tidal wave of endorsements – which in fact may not be so surprising after all. The main reason for this reticence, almost inevitably, is money. Modern sports fortunes are amassed not only by fat multiyear contracts but also by multimillion dollar product sponsorship deals: and who wants to upset the punters?

Consider how back in 1990 the most famous North Carolinian – some would say the most famous black man – on earth declined to endorse the African-American candidate running for the Democrats in a bitterly fought Senate race in his home state, even though the Republican was the irredeemably racist Jesse Helms.

In Michael Jordan's immortal words of 18 years ago...

"Republicans buy sneakers too."

Translated, the world's most potent human advertising hoarding was not going to allow mere politics to foul his golden nest. Major league sports players are very different from other African-Americans; they are exceedingly rich. As part of his campaign platform, Obama promises to raise taxes for anyone making more than $250,000. But compared with the stratospheric rewards available to even journeymen big leaguers, that sum is chicken feed. The average salary in the NBA is $4.9m, in Major League Baseball $2.9m and in the National Football League $1.25m. The top stars, thanks to those huge sponsorship deals, earn far more. At Cleveland, James ("King James" to his millions of fans, white and black alike) for instance makes a a reputed $40m a year, while Derek Jeter, the face of New York Yankees baseball, rakes in an estimated $30m. Small wonder the professional black athlete's take on the world is often less "hood" than hedge fund. As Fred Smoot, the Washington Redskins cornerback, said: "We're coming from Democratic backgrounds, but right now we've got Republican money."

And then, of course, there's Tiger Woods, the highest-earning sports star of them all (an estimated $128m in 2008), and the black athlete who most resembles Obama in his ability to transcend race. Anxious not to upset his overwhelmingly Republican colleagues on the PGA tour, the Tiger has been pussy-cat discreet when it comes to politics.

"He's extremely articulate, very thoughtful," Woods confided apropos of Obama, to reporters who cornered him last February at the Dubai Desert Classic. But then again, "I'm just impressed at how well, basically all politicians really do, how well they think on their feet." As for Obama's chances, "We'll see what happens down the road." No professional politician could have been less revealing of his feelings. Even when a McCain adviser publicly mocked Obama to one of his Democratic opposite numbers as "your Tiger Woods" the great man was not goaded into breaking his silence. Some do say, though, that Woods has indeed slipped a quiet contribution to campaign Obama.

Not that it would necessarily make much difference if Woods went public with the fact. After all, movie stars as rich and famous as he have been coming out for political candidates for years – and much difference it has made. Tinseltown adores Democrats. But it's the Republicans who've won seven of the last 10 presidential elections.

Nonetheless, while public endorsements are relatively few, it would be astonishing if the elite of African-American sport were not quietly lining up behind Obama. They may be rich, but they are also black. They cannot be immune to the emotions of pride and solidarity that have led 95 per cent of ordinary black voters to favour Obama. In dressing rooms across the country, Campaign 2008 is, by all accounts, a constant talking point. Sporting idols may be insulated from the real world, but not, surely, so anaesthetised by the George W Bush tax cuts that they are unaware of the crisis facing their country, and the national yearning for change.

"It's just time," Rollins told the Philadelphia Inquirer in early June, when Obama had effectively seen off Clinton in their long primary struggle. "America is so much different than it was. People want something new. This has been going on for so many years and it's getting worse. So why not try something new? Maybe Barack can be that answer."

Or as Vonnie Holliday of the NFL's Miami Dolphins has put it, "As a black man, am I excited about Obama being a candidate, where I can tell my son who is three years old, 'Believe it, you can be President one day?' Yes.

But whether or not the black sporting elite supports Obama is only a small part of the story. Far more important, without the black sports stars of this and earlier eras he might well not be where he is today, destined – if the polls are correct – to be the first African-American to win the highest office in the land.

In most countries, a cricketer, footballer or tennis player, however gifted, would hardly qualify as a major historical figure. Not so in the US. If race is America's original and lingering sin, America's sports stadiums were where that sin at last started to be expunged.

In April 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first player to break the colour barrier in a major American team sport, when he took the field for baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers.

Since then sport, along with popular music, has established itself as the most colour-blind part of American life. As early as the late 1960s, the starting line-up for the NBA's Boston Celtics was entirely black, and today three-quarters of American basketball major leaguers are black. In the NFL, a majority are African-American. Ironically, only in baseball, where it all started, is the proportion smaller, at about 10 per cent.

African-American athletes were accepted, then admired, and then feted across racial barriers. It was in sport first of all that a black man could turn from threat into hero, in the minds of many whites. Yes, menacing figures were to be found: Sonny Liston of course, as well as Muhammad Ali in his Cassius Clay incarnation, before metamorphosis into the globally beloved quasi-deity of today, and more recently Mike Tyson, self-described "baddest man on the planet".

Then there was O J Simpson, who went in the opposite direction to Ali – from family-friendly NFL superstar and Hertz rental car pitchman with the white trophy wife, to villain of the most racially charged murder trial in modern US history.

But these were the exceptions. The trend has been towards normality and equality; towards spanning, not deepening, racial barriers. In every respect but one, Washington DC is a city divided. The sole institution in the capital around which blacks and whites, rich and poor, Democrats and Republicans, unite is the Redskins, whose players are mostly African-American.

And from sport, it is not fanciful to argue, the acceptance of blacks has spread to the movies, in the shape of smash box-office stars like Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx and Will Smith, and more recently to politics (read Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice). "I think African-American athletes have played a key part in the process," says Frank Deford, doyen of American sports writers. "You get to be a great player, then you become an idol, to whites and blacks alike. Unconsciously or not, Obama in that sense is the end product."

The line is a long one; from Jackie Robinson to the tennis champions Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, to baseball players like Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, to basketball idols like Wilt Chamberlain and Earvin "Magic" Johnson, to Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, with countless others along the way.

The process has involved not just players, but managers, too. In 1992 the wise and gracious Cito Gaston became the first black manager to win a World Series, with the Toronto Blue Jays, while just last year Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith were head coaches of the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears respectively, when the teams met in Super Bowl XLI in Miami – the first NFL championship game in which both teams were managed by an African-American. Gradually, it was taken for granted that blacks could not only excel as performers in sports. They could strategise, organise and man-manage as well.

And so to Obama, a potential winner in presidential politics, the roughest contact sport of all. "Maybe," Deford says, "Barack Obama would have been the nominee if there had never been a Jackie Robinson, a Michael Jordan, a Tony Dungy and a Derek Jeter. But I don't think so."

Maybe he won't win. Maybe America's sleeping demon of race will reawaken on 4 November, when Americans who are now telling pollsters they will vote for a black man refuse to do so behind the curtain of the voting booth.

One thing. however, is sure. After casting his vote on election day, Barack Obama will not tempt the gods. He will repair to a basketball court to indulge his superstition. And perhaps he will spare a thought for the basketball players, the baseball and football idols, the boxers, golfers and tennis players who may have made his entire, amazing journey possible in the first place.

On November 4th, "Do The Right Thing", get out and vote.

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