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Dog days

If you’re a Georgia Bulldog, you’ve grown accustomed to winning. Your football team won the national championship last season, and this season you’re undefeated and sitting at number one in the college football rankings after pulverizing former number one Tennessee. And at least for the time being, you’ve grabbed the mantle as the presumed national power away from SEC rival Alabama, who for a near generation has reigned supreme. It has placed Georgia in a national spotlight we once assumed for places like Florida and Ohio, states that housed perennial football powers.

The same can now be said for national politics. Instead of talking about nail biters in the Sunshine State or the rust belt, we’re talking about Georgia – and more specifically, about Georgia Bulldogs football. That’s because the University’s most famous former player Hershel Walker stands in a dead heat in the Georgia senate race, a contest where neither he nor democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock reached 50% of the popular vote and will now move to a winner-take-all election in December. And by take all, we may really mean all, as it’s entirely possible if not likely that this senate seat will decide the balance of power in the legislative body. So, just as in college sports, it seems Georgia Bulldog Football is positioned to lead the nation.

As a Florida Gator, I’m not particularly happy about this development for a long list of reasons – none the least being our relegation to the lower tier of the SEC football standings. There was a time in the not-too-distant memory when it would be nearly impossible to conceive the Bulldogs annually beating the Gators in the world’s largest cocktail party. But as an American citizen, I’m equally disturbed by this one particular Bulldog becoming a sitting US Senator. I’m not going to say which thing bothers me more, only because I don’t want to be judged.

It's impossible to detach Walker’s candidacy from his status as a Georgia college football legend. For those who don’t remember his playing days in the 80’s, Walker was essentially a human wrecking truck, largely running through and over everything in his path while setting dozens of rushing records – at Georgia, the SEC, and nationally – and winning a Heisman in 1982. He was a folk hero who proclaimed to never lift weights in his life, building strength only through nonstop pushups and sit-ups while watching TV. Even back then he had some trouble with the truth. And even though he went on to a considerable pro career, much more in the USFL playing for Donald Trump’s New Jersey Generals than in his years in the NFL, he will always be best remembered for his otherworldly time in Athens. Meaning, if Hershel Walker had not carried the beloved Bulldogs on his back for three legendary seasons, there would be absolutely zero chance he’d be on the cusp of turning the US Senate in a further character of itself, someone that makes Tommy Tuberville – another SEC football legend turned US Senator – look like a MacArthur Genius.

I won’t debate the logic of electing former star athletes to political office, only because it’s often something of a red herring in the conversation about candidate quality. Certainly, there are athletes who would also thrive in the political arena, just as they might in other lines of work. There are also athletes who have little understanding of the function of federal government and shouldn’t be allowed to visit Congress on a tour bus. Like Hershel Walker. Generally speaking, I’d hope our future leaders see public service as a calling instead of means of reliving the glory of the gridiron. But ain’t that America.

What is interesting here is that while Walker may have used his Bulldog past to push him to the front, it doesn’t seem to be getting him over the goal line. Walker performed about five points below republican governor Brian Kemp on the same ticket. Kemp did also attend Georgia, but quit football after high school. And his current claim to fame was standing up to Trump during the 2020 election count in Georgia, which seems to have erased the memory of some dirty politics during his 2018 Gubernatorial race. Which is all a long way of saying that when it comes to sports heroes and elections, there is a line. Even in Georgia. Even when the Bulldogs are a runaway favorite to win their second consecutive national football championship. Which means that while the Bulldogs are fond of winning, there may still be things more important than football.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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