In Georgia, how sports explain a political battleground

Dec 4, 2022, 7:36 AM | Updated: 7:46 am

SMYRNA, Ga. (AP) — The reception area of a metro Atlanta office suite is a veritable museum of Herschel Walker’s football success for the University of Georgia Bulldogs and the NFL. The office is part of the Atlanta Braves’ real estate development in the Major League Baseball franchise’s new suburban home.

This headquarters for Georgia’s Republican U.S. Senate nominee isn’t officially about athletics, of course. Yet the location and décor help show much professional sports and college loyalties explain political divides in this battleground state, where Walker is trying to unseat Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in a Tuesday runoff.

“Sports are a cultural identifier, and in the South, college fandom is a big part of that,” said David Mowery, a University of Georgia alumnus, avid Bulldogs supporter and now an Alabama-based political consultant who works with Republicans and Democrats. “Now our politics and campaigns are so much about identity,” Mowery said. “We see all these overlaps.”

Sports and politics have long intersected in America. But the flashpoints — racial segregation of college campuses and professional leagues, the use of Native American mascots and imagery, athletes protesting over civil rights, power struggles over taxpayer-funding for stadiums — are ever-present in Georgia.

For Republicans, whose coalition trends older, whiter and less urban than the general population, that means an open embrace of the Bulldogs and baseball’s Braves, each with fan bases that trend whiter and more suburban and rural. And it’s not just Walker, who carried the Bulldogs to the national championship in 1980 and won the Heisman Trophy two years later.

“Great politics, great place to campaign,” said Gov. Brian Kemp, a UGA alumnus, as he tailgated with supporters in Athens ahead of a Georgia game earlier this season.

The governor grew up in Athens and is close to the family of the late Bulldog Coach Vince Dooley. His wife, Marty, was a Georgia cheerleader in her student days, he reminded reporters as he previewed the Bulldogs’ 2022 prospects. The defending national champions, he said, “have got the players” but “got to stay humble.” (They won the Southeastern Conference Championship on Saturday.)

Kemp and Lt. Gov.-elect. Burt Jones, who also played for Georgia, join Walker in using red and black as their campaign colors. Attorney General Chris Carr, who won a second term in November, sometimes calls himself a “Double Dawg” — the honorific for someone with two UGA degrees.

Democrats’ coalition, meanwhile, is anchored by metropolitan areas and nonwhites, who now account for about 4 out of 10 Georgia voters. So, when politicians like Warnock bring sports into their campaigns, it’s to drop by an Atlanta sports bar during the recent World Cup soccer match between the U.S. and Iran.

Warnock will campaign Sunday in Athens. But on Saturday, when Walker was at the SEC Championship game, Warnock was in Augusta. The senator visited his alma mater, the historically Black Morehouse College, on Homecoming weekend this fall, but he notes, with a mix of seriousness and humor, a different focus and scale.

“You know how it is if you go … to an HBCU football game,” Warnock told a campaign event of HBCU fraternities and sororities. “It’s not just a game, it’s a fashion show and the Battle of the Bands.”

Jason Carter, Democrats’ 2014 nominee for governor, has explained Georgia politics by pointing to Atlanta’s professional soccer team and its demographically diverse fans. “Stacey needs the Atlanta United vote,” he’d say of Stacey Abrams, who lost to Kemp in 2018 and 2022.

Certainly, there are white soccer fans in Republican-leaning suburbs and Democrats, white and Black, who love the Bulldogs and Braves. One of Warnock’s top aides organized “Dawgs for Abrams” as a UGA undergraduate in 2018. Nonetheless, the partisan split in campaign styles dovetails with race and geography, even if it’s not explicit.

When Walker and Kemp chose campaign offices near each other in the Braves’ Cobb County development, Republicans described a straightforward decision to be near metro Atlanta’s northern suburbs so critical to their winning coalition. The Braves themselves had made the same calculation, leaving the city in 2017 after a half-century and explaining the surprise move by saying they’d be closer to most of their season-ticket holders. (Cobb County politicians also gave the team $400 million-plus in stadium financing, something Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed refused to do. Reed instead steered city money to refurbish a downtown arena for the NBA’s Hawks.)

Perhaps most notably, Republicans’ embrace of the Braves came alongside controversies over Native American imagery in sports and a separate political tempest over Republicans’ 2021 overhaul of Georgia election laws.

Democrats, including Warnock, blasted the law as “Jim Crow 2.0,” claiming it made it harder for some Black voters to cast ballots. Georgia-based corporations Delta and Coca-Cola criticized the law. The Braves stayed out of the fray. But baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred moved the 2021 All-Star Game from Cobb County in response. Kemp blamed “woke” Democrats relentlessly, though Warnock and Abrams didn’t call for the change.

The two Democrats also haven’t said the Braves should change their name or abandon fans’ “Tomahawk Chop” at home games, but others, including the Biden White House, have said changes should be on the table.

“He need to come out and say, do he believe they should change the name. Well, I don’t,” Walker said in one Fox News appearance. When Warnock largely ignored the issue, a Walker aide tweeted that the senator “must be a Mets fan.”

Yet it’s unquestionably Walker’s football acclaim that forges a unique bond between a Black conservative and a multigenerational white political base.

“When I was in high school, Herschel Walker was the biggest name in town,” Republican National Committee member Ginger Howard said of the 1980 championship season. Now, she said, her young nephews say excitedly: “Ginger, you know Herschel!”

On Saturday, Zach Jacobs and Zach Adams, 23-year-olds from the Atlanta exurb of Woodstock, waited near Mercedes Benz-Stadium downtown to get a picture with Walker. Both voted for their football hero in the general election and said they will again Tuesday.

“He’s a man of the people, just connects with who Georgia is,” Jacobs said.

Walker has on occasion talked about being among the first generation of Black players at UGA, which was founded in 1785. Dooley, who endorsed Walker before the iconic coach died in October, first offered scholarships to Black athletes in 1971. Walker was 8 years old.

Warnock, born in 1969, was not a star athlete and matriculated at Morehouse, which opened its doors during post-Civil War Reconstruction, a founding legacy that Warnock’s fellow HBCU alumni say supersedes athletics.

“We have a motto, a program: ‘A Voteless People is a Hopeless People,'” Marcus Montgomery said of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity he shares with the senator.

Adams, a white UGA graduate, acknowledged Warnock’s deep Georgia roots. But, gesturing to the surrounding downtown Atlanta, he said, “Herschel is the man who can improve all of this, and the rest of Georgia.”

Walker’s runoff election night celebration will be nearby in downtown Atlanta, just a few blocks from Warnock’s party. It’s a shift from Walker’s and Kemp’s Nov. 8 affairs adjacent to the Braves’ stadium. But the former star running back isn’t necessarily breaking the mold. His venue this time: the College Football Hall of Fame.

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In Georgia, how sports explain a political battleground