Meet Craig James. If you aren't a football fan, you've probably never heard of the guy. If you are inclined toward the pigskin, well, James's voice should be pretty familiar to you—he's been commentating at ESPN for 20 years after a short but successful career with the New England Patriots. He's also running for U.S. Senate in Texas.
In a state where football is pretty much holy, James hews closely to the stereotype. He calls the Constitution "the playbook" and speaks in broad platitudes about hating Obama and loving America. Why isn't he afraid to stand up to power? Because, he explains, the last guy he was awed by was Patriots' quarterback Steve Grogan. While he argues that it's his experience as a rancher, father, and real-estate mogul that qualify him for office, he falls back on football as his primary qualification an awful lot.
One Boston Globe profile gives a pretty clear portrait of the image that James wants to project:
At home, James dons his blue jeans, cowboy hat, and boots, and an old Pat Patriot sweatshirt, and retreats to his study. It is lined with a dozen footballs, a “James Gang’’ poster, his old Patriot helmet, a Super Bowl poster, and two prized bucks he shot, one with bow and arrow. George Bush’s autobiography is on his desk. No. 32 is a big fan of No. 43.
But, as just about every sports site following James' new-found political career will tell you, James has two football scandals in his life, both of them at Texas college football programs. There was Southern Methodist University, where he was part of storied offense until he admitted to taking money from boosters, part of the school's pattern of paying players that led the NCAA to impose the "death penalty," cancelling the school's entire 1987 season. James has called the amounts he accepted "insignificant," but as a recent AP profile noted,
James himself helped remind people of the infamous scandal when he publicized ESPN's documentary on the matter.
That alone would be quite a difficult mark to overcome, but that's not all for James. Just two years ago, he was involved in the Texas Tech scandal that ultimately led to the firing of head coach Mike Leach, a fan favorite. James claimed his son, Adam, was made to stand for hours in a dark shed after suffering a concussion. Leach argued he did not mistreat the younger James—and that the former Patriot was pushing to get his son more time in games. Later reports surfaced that it was James who pushed the university to fire Leach rather than simply give him a slap on the wrist. The coach is suing James (as well as Tech and ESPN). Meanwhile, ,James has chosen to also take to the courtroom to protest claims
about the scandal—just as his fledgling (and long-shot) candidacy takes off.
As anyone who's seen Friday Night Lights
knows, football carries a lot of weight in this state, and in many ways it's tied to the veneration of tradition and values. Plenty of people in Texas will tell you they love God, country, and football. The key is, of course, that football conjures up hard work and grit. James is banking on that image to send him to Washington; as he says in the world's blandest campaign ad
, "I know that America can get back on track by getting back to the values that made us great."
It might seem stupid to send someone to Washington based on a fantasy of what football means. But in this case, football gives a fairly unflattering portrait of James as a candidate. To many, he personifies the things that get in the way of the game—money, power, and greed. Things people often associate with the Washington status quo. (Of course, it helps that James has almost no policy positions beyond loving America and disliking illegal immigration.)
James is undoubtedly a long-shot for the Republican nomination. He's contending with Ted Cruz, the former state solicitor general and Tea Party darling, as well as former Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, whose deep pockets give him a pretty good fundraising advantage. There's also former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert. According to a recent poll from Public Policy Polling
, James only has a 9 percent favorability rating—compared with 24 percent unfavorable. Sixty-seven percent of respondents didn't have an answer—which likely means they don't know him.
But it's hard to believe that with more information, they'd like him better.