Team work. Perseverance. Discipline. Daring. Fair play. These are qualities we associate with men and women who have been stars in professional and Olympic sports. We admire athletes for their talents and accomplishments, but also for the character and leadership they exhibit in the conduct of their lives. These are also qualities that Americans are looking for in their political leaders. Indeed, in many ways professional sports is a natural proving ground for public service:
- Competitive spirit: Just as athletes are sharpened through competition on the playing field, the essence of representative democracy is to govern through the competition of ideas. In both sports and politics, competition fuels productivity and creativity.
- Inclusiveness: In team sports, there is no individual achievement at the expense of one’s teammates. Although some will attain individual distinction, everyone has a part to play. Whatever race, religion or ethnic background, teammates are teammates in the locker room, on the field, or in life.
- Desire and Will: Perhaps the most distinctive quality of a professional athlete and a successful leader in politics is the desire to excel. From hard experience they know that achievement doesn’t come easy; it takes sacrifice, patience, not giving up – even in the face of defeat.
- Tested in the public limelight: Professional and Olympic athletes have experienced a high degree of public scrutiny on par with the political world – a real world proving ground of personal poise and character that cannot be simulated in practice.
- Name recognition and positive reputation: Athletes have enormous capital in their name recognition and reputation and this can be used to advance the public good. Yes, we still believe that athletes and their coaches should be role models: their private lives are important, and values and integrity do count. Reputations, in fact, are political capital that can be reinvested in making our society and nation better.
Our nation needs leaders of character. The still young men and women who have accomplished so much in their sport are a great talent pool that for the most part is underappreciated. They come from diverse backgrounds, from all walks of life across our great country, and they have done amazing things.
When athletes are ready to retire from their sport, they face the question, now what? Many athletes who have the potential to make extraordinary contributions to their community or their nation may shy away from public service. They may question their ability to master public policy or to lead in the public arena. For many, the political world is a great unknown. How do elections work? How does one prepare for public service? What does it take to succeed in public life? As a result, too few have the opportunity to reach for their potential in their second career.
For these talented men and women, Jack Kemp’s life and experiences can serve as a role model. He often said that it was a natural progression from quarterbacking a professional football team to leading a political cause. But behind that easy explanation lays a deeper story of how he made the intellectual and personal journey from sportsmanship to statesmanship.
At the height of his football career, Kemp developed a voracious interest in economics and the philosophical foundations of what he called the great American experiment in democracy. He read the seminal works of economic and political theory, sought lessons from historical scholars, and insights from the biographies of great Western leaders. He came to believe that economic freedom and political freedom were inseparable, opportunity was the greatest measure of economic justice, and ideas – not interests or influence or political deals – ruled the world. His unshakeable faith that there were no limits to what free men and women could accomplish inspired people from all walks of life. And his story is the inspiration behind the Kemp Leadership Academy.
“After going into the highly competitive business of pro football, I gained an even deeper appreciation of the competitive free-enterprise system to which this country owes its past, present, and future progress and freedom. I believe competition breeds the best, and the system of free enterprise has brought about the greatest society ever known.” – Jack Kemp