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Pro jocks in touch with presidential campaign

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It's the stretch run of a hotly contested political season and even athletes, historically non-political, are getting into the presidential race.

"We spend an hour a day talking about this exact subject - in meetings, on the plane, in the locker room," New Orleans Saints linebacker Scott Fujita told the AP. "I think it's just because there's a new interest in politics this campaign season, more than there's ever been as long as I've been following it."

Normally, most pro jocks (at least the ones who aired their views in public) have aligned themselves with Republicans, figuring their enormous salaries would not be as heavily taxed. But this year, reports indicate that Barack Obama has a lot of support in locker rooms. Whether this is because he would be the first African American president or whether it's simply time for a change, Obama's edge is noticeable.

Four years ago, it was not uncommon to find Bush-leaning athletes unwilling to speak openly about their preference because they didn't want to be perceived as voting against their ideals just to get a better tax rate. Some who went public for Kerry were chided by teammates because Kerry, like Obama this year, proposed raising taxes on the wealthy.

This year, the dynamic appears to have shifted. Several players said the locker room banter suggests many of their teammates are mirroring [Washington Redskin Phillip] Daniels' example and switching from Republican to Democrat. If the Redskins were a state, there was little question that Bush would have won its electoral votes in 2004. Asked what would happen this year, [cornerback Fred] Smoot said: "It's a blue state."

But McCain also has his supporters. Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn introduced John McCain and Sarah Palin at an Ohio rally this fall. Washington Redskin Ethan Albright said he's voting for McCain because he sees him as the most experienced and "because he ain't raising taxes."

In the NBA, with its large percentage of black players, Obama is the man, according to a story in the Washington Post.

"Guys are paying attention to what's going on in the world, and I think that many players realize the impact our voice can have," said Los Angeles Clippers point guard Baron Davis, an Obama supporter, who recently spoke at a "Women for Obama" rally in Los Angeles. "We should take it upon ourselves to educate and inspire others about issues that are important to us. We shouldn't wait for someone else to stand up and try to make a difference."

This can make NBA McCain supporters feel like a minority, though not a silent one.

Spencer Hawes, a second-year center with the Sacramento Kings, created a Facebook page for fans of conservative pundit Ann Coulter and had a bumper sticker on his car in high school that read, "God Bless George W. Bush." Hawes, 20, said he is backing Republican nominee John McCain and is excited about voting for president for the first time. Hawes hasn't campaigned on behalf of McCain but said, "but I'd be ready and willing if I was asked."

Fundrace.org is a great site to track campaign donations, and entering "athlete" or "professional athlete" in the occupation field finds more jocks giving to Democrats than Republicans. Obama donors include Luke Walton (Los Angeles Lakers), Roy Williams (Dallas Cowboys), Gary Brackett (Indianapolis Colts) and Eric Snow (Cleveland Cavaliers). LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers donated $20,000 to the Democratic White House Victory Fund.

McCain donors from the pro sports ranks are almost non-existent, with the Red Sox Curt Schilling being an exception. Former GOP candidates Ron Paul, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson (who got cash from fellow Tennessean Peyton Manning) also received donations during their run.

It's encouraging to see athletes staying abreast of the news and getting involved, though teams would prefer politics be kept off the field. Said Browns coach Romeo Crennel after Quinn endorsed McCain-Palin:

Their politics are their politics as long as they don't interfere with the team. That's my main concern, that they don't get on a soapbox here in the locker room and get it going back and forth about a particular candidate against another candidate. That's why the ballot is a secret ballot when you go vote.
(Quinn) took the time to do that, but as long as he keeps it outside the building and outside the team, that's his choice.

Photo: Top, Brady Quinn with John McCain; bottom, Barack Obama at a rally with the Tampa Bay Rays.