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Black NFL Players Debating Ties To GOP
NEW ORLEANS – On Aug. 26, 2005, the New Orleans Saints hosted the Baltimore Ravens in a preseason game here. Three days later, the levees fell and scores of people were killed or stranded by Hurricane Katrina.
As the nation prepares to vote Tuesday in a highly charged mid-term election that could change the balance of power in Congress, the political remnants of Katrina have seeped into the locker rooms of the Saints and Ravens, who played here again last week.
Many of the teams’ African-American players, usually reliable GOP voters, are engaged in a debate over whether the Bush administration’s slow response to the storm is reason to vote for the Democrats.
Blacks in America have voted Democratic for generations, but many African-American pro football players, spurred by their high incomes, long have voted Republican, according to players and a book by John Feinstein, “Next Man Up.”
While the war in Iraq, terrorism and the economy are key issues in Tuesday’s election, the controversy over the response to Katrina, which seemed to have a disproportionate impact on blacks in New Orleans, is driving the debate among the players.
“I don’t think a lot of people are going to be in favor of what they thought they were going to be in favor of because of the [Katrina] situation,” New Orleans Saints defensive end Charles Grant said as his team prepared to face the Ravens last Sunday.
Grant and his Saints teammates get a daily view of what Katrina did to this city. He said that while not every Saints player wants to change parties, there have been lively locker room discussions.
Ravens linebacker Bart Scott was at the center of animated political debates in Baltimore’s locker room prior to the 2004 presidential election. According to Feinstein’s book, he pleaded with his teammates not to vote with their wallets but rather their hearts.
Feinstein, who spent a year with the Ravens doing behind-the-scenes reporting, wrote that Scott usually was shouted down by teammates.
But after returning to play in New Orleans for the first time since the storm, Scott said he isn’t getting shouted down anymore.
“It’s about my conscience,” said Scott, who places blame on all levels of government. “I can deal with losing a couple of thousand dollars [in taxes]. But my family, they aren’t where I’m at. So I’m free, but my family suffers? And even if my family doesn’t suffer, I’m going to know someone that classism affects.”
Scott said the images he and his teammates saw in the days after the team left New Orleans were hard to forget.
“The next day, the devastation of watching people being treated like they’re in a third world country. What kind of country are we?” Scott asked.
“We’re so fast to run to help some third world country, but here we are in America and I never thought I’d see this. I thought everyone would stop what they were doing and get those people out. It was a shame … it was disgusting.”
The Republican Party is aware of the voting block of NFL players and a spokesman urged the athletes to stick with the GOP.
“Anytime you hear someone consider voting Democratic it’s concerning, particularly those who have supported the Republican Party. Folks need to keep in mind those core principles that enamored them of the party,” Republican National Committee spokesman Danny Diaz said.
“Certainly we face a challenging political environment overall and there are those who are frustrated and concerned with the response [to Katrina] that took place. One of those people is the president. That’s why he’s spoken so forcefully about fixing mistakes.”
While they haven’t done much to court NFL Republican voters, the Democrats will gladly scoop up any GOP fumbles if it helps them win Congress.
“I hope those guys will put their words into action on [Tuesday],” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Adrienne Elrod said. “There has been a huge uproar about the way the administration handled Katrina … people are ready for change.”
But not everyone is ready to make a change at the ballot box.
Ravens Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed, a New Orleans-area native who contributed money to the relief effort along with many of his teammates, preferred to avoid the debate.
“That’s a sensitive conversation for some reason, but I don’t get into the politics. Politics is a rough system. It is what it is,” Reed said.
But former UNC star and current Ravens starting left guard Jason Brown said the storm may have been a political tipping point.
“It’s not just Katrina — it’s everything opening people’s eyes,” said Brown, a Henderson native who lost his older brother, Lunsford, in a mortar attack in Iraq three years ago.
“A lot of [NFL players] don’t want to talk about it because it’s so political. But it hit right at home for me because of my brother. I lost my brother.”
Brown said he doesn’t think the government’s response to the storm will sway many NFL voters one way or another.
“At the end of the day, people’s loyalty is still going to be to their wallets,” Brown said. “It’s sad to see that, but that’s the civilization that we live in.”