On the Mark: Drawing the Line at Athletes Endorsing Politicians

Mexican soccer player Giovani dos Santos. Photo: Google


On Saturday, Jan. 21, a TikTok video began circulating online with Mexican soccer players Giovani dos Santos (who last played for Liga MX squad Club América) and Miguel Layún, as well as retired midfielder Braulio Luna, expressing their support for Interior (SeGob) Secretary Adán Augusto López Hernández, one of the presidential candidates of the National Regeneration Movement (Morena).

López Hernández promptly issued a statement about the video, thanking the three for their show of “affection and solidarity,” but asked them “to abide by the constitutional and legal framework.”

“There are a series of limitations and restrictions when it comes to communicating support to some public officials, as is my case,” said López Hernández. He also said that in his role as secretary of the interior, he is obliged “not only to respect the regulatory framework that governs my actions, but I must also ensure compliance and enforce the regulations that are in force.”

López Hernández also called for messages or propaganda not to be disseminated, and that his “name, image or public position not be used on social networks or any means of communication or dissemination, since it is currently not the electoral season.”

This hits close to home for me as a Filipino, because in the Philippines we are used to athletes or former athletes endorsing politicians — or those athletes seeking public office themselves, after their sports career is over. An example of this was when Filipino boxing legend Manny Pacquiao in 2007 endorsed a provincial governor for the Senate, someone who admitted that he was involved in illegal gambling — one of the favorite pastimes in the Philippines — while serving as governor, and that he received payoffs from gambling lords who were operating with free rein in his province. This governor would become one of Pacquiao’s closest advisors throughout his political career, and would even accompany the boxer in his fights in the United States.

Pacquiao would eventually run and win a Senate seat himself — while still very much active in his boxing career — earning himself the dubious title of the Philippine Senate’s top absentee, apart from the moniker “the Fighting Senator.” Pacquiao had also set his sights on the presidency of the Philippines after his Senate term, only to lose to Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. in May of last year. Bongbong, of course, is the son of the late dictator and kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos Sr. and former first lady and serial shoe collector Imelda Romualdez Marcos.

Marcos Jr., incidentally, also benefitted from athlete endorsements during his presidential campaign — notably from a famous Filipino professional basketball player, and the players of a women’s collegiate volleyball team.

Here in Mexico, perhaps the most prominent — and current — case of an athlete turned politician is former Olympian Ana Gabriela Guevara, who served as a senator from 2012 to 2018, and who left her position as a federal deputy for the Labor Party (PT) to accept the position of head of Mexico’s National Commission for Physical Culture and Sports (Conade), which was offered to her by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO).

Guevara has figured in several controversies as head of the Conade. In June 2021, Mexican diver and two-time Olympic medalist Paola Espinosa accused Guevara of intentionally blackballing her from participating in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Guevara’s tenure at the Conade has been marred by allegations and complaints from athletes, whom she allegedly silences with the threat of cutting off their sports scholarships.

Cases of athletes endorsing politicians aren’t just common here in Mexico and in the Philippines, of course. For instance, in 2016, NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, MLB great Alex Rodriguez and tennis icon Billie Jean King supported Hillary Clinton for the U.S. presidency, while wrestling superstar Hulk Hogan, five-time NBA champion Dennis Rodman and former star wide receiver Terrell Owens endorsed Donald Trump.

We have to draw the line at athletes — and other celebrities, really — endorsing politicians, though. Famous athletes, retired or not, naturally have clout and can influence voters, especially their fans. Which is exactly the point, right? What these celebrities say can sway how someone at the voting precinct decides to write on the ballot — and is that really a good thing? Especially since not every voter votes on the basis of a candidate’s qualifications, experience, leadership qualities, how he or she decides on the burning issues of the day and what that candidate can bring to office. But it’s not a perfect world, and there are a lot of people out there who will vote for a particular candidate simply on the basis of an endorsement from their favorite soccer player.

On the afternoon of Sunday, López Hernández asked some of his critics to “stop their attacks” on the soccer personalities who expressed their support for him.

“I’m sorry for the unfair attacks that the players have received for having greeted me on social networks, which was surely from people who want to help me, and as I already mentioned, this is not the time,” wrote López Hernández on his Twitter account. “The time now belongs to Mexico and to concentrate on continuing to work for what unites us.”

Meanwhile, political commentator F. Bartolome, in his Sunday column for Mexican daily newspaper Reforma, put in his two cents.

“With that Adán Augusto López yesterday (Saturday) asked his supporters to stop promoting him in his capacity as presidential corcholata, there are those who wonder if he did it out of conviction or just to cover the forms,” wrote Bartolome.

“The devil is in the details, and the truth is that the exhortation made by the Secretary of the Interior to his followers was to stop spreading propaganda messages with his name, image or public office as the sports ‘influencers’ did. But nothing has been said about the fact that, since last year, walls and facades painted with the message ‘Keep going López, we are Agusto’ have multiplied throughout the country. Are these messages just right because they disguise his name and do not mention his position? If so, the conclusion is that the main reason that the Morenista has for not violating the law is to avoid being punished and not complying with it, because that is the right thing to do.”

What a mess. Maybe politics and sports really shouldn’t mix.

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