Meet Ben Miller ’11. At 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, he is an offensive lineman for the Yale football team. But he’s more than that. He’s also a devout Christian who identifies himself as conservative.
He started playing football in the third grade. “It’s the sport I know,” he says. A Minnesota native from a suburb of Minneapolis, Ben attributes a large part of his personal development — as a football player, but also as a conservative-minded thinker — to his dad.
Ben’s love for the all-American sport carried over from his father, who coached his grade-school teams when he was growing up.
“Him and I are internally wired the same way,” he says. “He was kind of a catalyst to me, observing conservative views.”
Small government? Yes. Pro-life? Definitely. The war in Iraq?
“I think it was right to go in, but I think we did it for the wrong reasons,” Ben explains. “But now that we’re there, we have to finish the job.”
On this purportedly liberal campus, varsity sports players compose roughly 20 percent of the undergraduate population. In an informal poll conducted by the News, 21 of 34 students interviewed said they think athletes are more conservative than the average non-athlete.
Yet, of the 35 randomly selected Yale varsity athletes interviewed for this article, only 11 identified themselves as politically conservative, and just seven said their varsity athlete counterparts tend to lean toward the right of the political spectrum.
But what is it about athleticism that perpetuates this seemingly campuswide impression? Some experts say ideals of individual responsibility and machismo, as well as religious roots, are just as integral to being an athlete as donning helmets and wearing kneepads.
Plus, many athletes who identify themselves as conservative are concentrated in the most publicly visible teams: football, basketball and lacrosse, for example.
So even though Yale athletes run the gamut of political beliefs, their commitments to sports — and the social circles that come with them — fortify, rather than break, the stereotype of the Republican jock.
You Throw Like a Girl
When asked what he loves most about sports, Ben does not hesitate to respond. His long-sleeved dress shirt is cleanly pressed and unbuttoned at the top, revealing a silver crucifix necklace against a white undershirt. With both his feet relaxed on the table and his arms stretched across the back of the sofa, Ben answers confidently.
“Competition. No question,” he says, cracking a smile. “I guess it’s just a euphemism for wanting to prove that you’re the best.”
Experts assert that athletics and conservatism share a set of common values. Anthropology professor William Kelly, who is teaching “Sport, Society and Culture” this semester, says the focus on the individual athlete as a performer encourages a politically conservative mindset. Each athlete is responsible for his own effort, talent and accomplishment, Kelly explains.
Despite the importance of teams and collective responsibility in certain sports, athletes are forced to take ownership of themselves and their performance.
“The guy that’s going to do best on the field is going to be the guy that worked the hardest in the weight room,” Ben explains.
Orin Starn, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke, has written extensively on sports culture and politics. Starn agrees with Kelly and Ben. Though in recent decades professional athletes have shied away from public politics for fear of endangering their careers, Starn says athletics ties several strands of modern conservatism together, especially in an economic sense. The relationship is summarized in a 2007 post on Starn’s blog.
“It’s not surprising in a way that sports would tend to generate conservatism,” he writes. “Sports, at least in their commonest 21st century American form, celebrate values of competition and individual achievement, numbers and number-crunching, and spoils-to-the winners that mesh with the 21st century capitalist status quo.”
In addition to individualism, sports promote ideals of masculinity, which serve to further ingrain the traditional roles of man and woman in society, Kelly says.
In the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election, the political advocacy group Football Fans for Truth launched a campaign for the Eli candidate it believed was more athletic. John Kerry, the group alleged, “throws a football like a girl.” George W. Bush, on the other hand, often threw strikes at pre-game baseball ceremonies. (Ironically, Kerry lettered in a sport — soccer — while he was at Yale. Bush did not.)
The group was chastised for making sweeping generalizations about which candidate would be a better president. Manliness and athleticism, Football Fans For Truth critics argued, do not necessarily translate into effective leadership. But the group’s claims were entertained by dozens of news outlets, bringing Kerry’s supposed lack of athleticism out into the open.
Even in light of Title IX — a 1972 law that prohibited sexual discrimination in higher education — and the growth in popularity of women’s athletics, Kelly says sports continue to reinforce the view that men are stronger than women. It is paradoxical, Kelly explains, because it seems that the more women play sports, the more people feel men’s sports are just better. Compared to professions with more level playing fields (so to speak), such as business and academia, sports still gravitate towards a socially conservative equilibrium, he says.
Kelly’s observation helps explain the results of the News’ informal poll. Of the 15 female varsity sports players interviewed, just three identified themselves as conservative.
For God, For Red States, For Yale
“Without God, I’d have nothing,” Ben says. “In a way, He’s responsible for it all, but I don’t take a deterministic view to it. God gave me the tools, the fuel, the inspiration, and I had to meet Him halfway to help produce the kind of person I am today.”
Religious fervor is possibly the most visible of athlete stereotypes. Organizations like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action, which has a large following at Yale, work to strengthen the connection between a love for sports and a devotion to strong Christian values.
In interviews, most of the 35 varsity athletes identified themselves as being strongly religious; many are involved with religious groups on campus. Ben’s teammate Matthew Plummer ’09, for example, leads a small football-team Bible study group Wednesday nights.
The trend can be traced back to “Muscular Christianity,” a lifestyle movement that took form in the latter part of the 19th century. Muscular Christianity emphasized the ball-in-glove relationship between Christian activism and athletic masculinity — the bond between physical strength and spirituality.
Even on a professional level, religion plays an influential role in the values and behavior of athletes across the country. At one extreme, sports stars use their fame to promote evangelical Christianity, Starn explained. Tom Lehman, captain of the American golf team at the Ryder Cup and an outspoken religious conservative, treats his career as if “God gave him golf as a platform to spread the word of the Lord,” Starn said. Religious individuals share the belief that they’re a part of something larger than themselves — a concept prevalent in team sports that emphasizes the whole as greater than the sum of its parts.
Religious or not, this team atmosphere often serves as a home away from home — “a second family,” according to basketball player Lindsey Williams ’11 — for athletes. But this close-knit community can even further separate athletes from their non-athlete peers.
Men’s soccer coach Brian Tompkins says he tries to get his players to buy into particular mind set that will guide their behavior both on and off the field. Even though a team’s collective attitude may appeal to leftist thinking, Starn said sports are ultimately still about beating the other guys — a stereotypically conservative trait.
“Team sports is all about struggle, victory, defeat and crushing the competition,” Starn said. “Even though teams are involved in this proto-socialist idea of collaboration and teamwork, they’re ultimately about winning and climbing the ladder.”
Fake Right, Go Left
Matt Campbell ’07, who was a member of the heavyweight crew team while at Yale, remembers having a conversation with a teammate about how the Democrats, traditionally the party of big government, have a better track record of fiscal responsibility.
“This rather rightish person responded, ‘Well, how many wars have the Democrats won?’” Campbell wrote in an e-mail from London. “I think we stopped after the first and second World Wars.”
Discussions among athletes, at lifts or at practices, distinguish Yale players from those at other universities, Athletics Director Thomas Beckett says. These conversations are a glaring reminder of the intellectual acuity of athletes at Yale, Beckett adds, and show that the perception of a rightward slant among athletes is nothing more than a misconception.
The caliber of the locker room chatter here stood out for Porter Braswell ’11; in fact, it was one of the things that persuaded him to play basketball for Yale. Braswell recalls a recent discussion he and his teammates had at practice about natural selection, human evolution and intelligent design. Similarly, Joshua Cox ‘08, a former member of the Roosevelt Institution at Yale and now a member of the Black Men’s Union, says his team as a whole shows a high level of political awareness.
“Whenever I walk into the locker room, my coach will immediately start talking about politics: ‘Did you see Huckabee on TV last night?’ or ‘See the debate? I thought Hillary did well.’”
Demographics and political views held by players vary vastly from team to team. While football players say most of their team shares relatively conservative values, members of men’s and women’s crew teams say their teammates have a penchant for liberalism.
Conservatism may be misunderstood because of the prominence of right-leaning teams on campus, Kelly says. When non-athletes think about someone who plays sports, they usually picture football or basketball players, not someone from one of the other 33 varsity teams in existence.
Coincidentally, the more visible teams are often those that recruit from all over the country rather than from regional pockets.
Football, in particular, is so popular across the United States that Yale can effectively “recruit the nation,” Beckett says.
Beckett also says he does not think any generalizations can be made about Yale’s athletic recruiting on the whole. He concedes that some sports, like lacrosse and hockey, tend to be played in certain areas of North America, but even those trends may be changing.
The athletes interviewed agree that when the average Yale student hears the word “athlete,” they probably envision the stereotypical television jock: big, buff and close-minded. But the truth of the matter, many athletes explain, is that athletes are just as diverse in their thinking as non-athletes at the University.
“I believe the spectrum of social views of football players are more reflective of the American population than of a distribution of Yale students, who tend to be more socially liberal,” football Andrew Liyana ’08 said in an e-mail.
Beating the Buzzer
Athletes say they can’t defend themselves against these misconceptions because they don’t have the time to actively engage in Yale’s political subculture. Regardless of whether locker-room talk touches on politics, that insider’s perspective is rarely available to the rest of the student body. Because there are so many seemingly intuitive reasons why sports and conservatism seem to go hand-in-hand — individualism, manliness and religious identify being just a few — Yalies tend to assume that most, if not all, athletes are conservative.
Braswell, a forward on the basketball team, recounts his time as a high-school athlete, when he was “a student first.” In an effort to branch out and try new things, Braswell and a few of his teammates started taking classes — ballet classes. Now, at Yale, where he says he is “an athlete first,” he only has time for basketball and coursework.
And he’s not the only one that feels these constraints. Practicing for a sport often makes taking afternoon classes and attending Master’s Teas an impossibility.
“I don’t really get to take classes that I think look cool because it’s too hard to put them on top of my pre-requisites and distributional requirements,” Katelynn Clement ’11 says. “I just don’t have enough time to focus and do well in five classes.”
Largely because of the time constraints, most athletes rarely get the opportunity to venture out and participate in Yale’s political subculture. Some athletes even say they feel alienated and removed from political groups on campus.
Tyler Guth ’08, a member of the men’s crew team, says athletes feel too different from the Yale students involved in activist causes. The most prominent movements on campus, Guth asserts, do not appeal to him because they are too idealistic and radically progressive.
“I don’t think very many varsity athletes are the type of people to sit in Commons every day and discuss the plight of some obscure group of people,” Guth says.
While athletes may have to choose between playing the sport they love and being politically active, they do not have to choose between sports and their core beliefs — which is not to suggest that even the most deeply-felt convictions last forever.
“It’s like that saying,” Ben says. He pauses, smiling, his feet still up on the table, his arms still stretched across the back of the sofa. “If you’re not a liberal by the time you’re 20, you don’t have a heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 40, you don’t have a brain.”