Throwback Thursday: Cory Booker and the Politics of Football

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Almost 28 years prior to his defining moment in the United States Senate, Cory Booker made his defining impression on college football. The then-tight end of the Stanford Cardinal hauled in four passes on slant routes, going over the middle, and then dragging defenders for big gains in a 36-31 defeat of Notre Dame.

Before the 2007 shocker at USC, Stanford’s comeback win over the No. 1-ranked Irish in 1990 might qualify as the program’s greatest upset of the modern era. Despite the Cardinal’s status as underdogs that October day, the roster was loaded with names that since have achieved high repute for a variety of reasons. Then-Stanford coach Dennis Green passed away in 2016, but is remembered as one of the most important sideline generals in college football history for breaking the Big Ten’s color barrier at Northwestern.

Ed McCaffrey embarked on a long NFL career (and his son was a pretty good Stanford player a generation later). David Shaw was an assistant in the 2007 USC upset, a redshirted first-year player during the 1990 Notre Dame upset, and has been the Cardinal head coach since 2011.

And then there’s Cory Booker.

The Philadelphia Inquirer spotlighted Cory Booker and the Notre Dame game earlier this year, which dovetails into the narrative arc of Booker’s failed football career that followed. His path to the NFL derailing led Booker to an early start in his political career, and that reached a crescendo today when the New Jersey Senator released documents that might be the turning point in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanuagh.

Football sits at the center of social and political conversation in 2018, in a sometimes uncomfortable way. A vocal contingent bemoans to keep politics out of sports! in response to Colin Kaepernick’s protests aimed to raise awareness of police brutality, or as a rallying cry to downplay the apolitical public school funding LeBron James provided.

While this derivative of STICK TO SPORTS is typically the byproduct of disagreement rather than rooted in genuine sentiment, it’s also historically inaccurate.

His firsthand experiences witnessing teammate Willis Ward’s exclusion from a game against Georgia Tech while at Michigan was a reason Pres. Gerald Ford cited his support of Affirmative Action admissions practices. The message of the controversial Nike ad released this week featuring Kaepernick — “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” — is perhaps the best crystallization of the defunct University of San Francisco football program.

Coincidentally, as of this writing, I am midway through reading John J. Miller’s excellent book The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football. Politics saved the game in its early years.

One of the central debates around the validity of football as a college sport even then was a topic still fiercely contested today: How does football factor into the educational mission of universities?

The big business of major college football today certainly obfuscates the relationship between sport and the educational mission of universities. Universities are intended as places of learning, and for many, the college years are a time to spark ones interest and find ones voice on matters like social justice and politics.

As The Inquirer details, Cory Booker began his Stanford football career with aspirations of attending law school. He’s similar in that regard to current Washington Huskies defensive back JoJo McIntosh, whose own law-school aspirations I highlighted in this feature on amateurism.

Likewise, a Stanford pass-catcher like Booker on the 2018 roster has leveraged his football career into life opportunities that could have a political foundation. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, an International Relations major, spent his summer interning for former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice

“Condi has interns every year, some athletes, some non-athletes,” David Shaw explained to me. “They have to be in an interest of something to do with her work: International Relations, some are Public Policy, people who are interested in politics. She wants to expand on that and give them an opportunity to learn from what she does, and give them her background and her experiences to help them in whatever they want to do after college.”

I asked Arcega-Whiteside what he hoped to achieve after football with his background interning for a Secretary of State. Arcega-Whiteside’s one of the best wide receivers in college football and thus has a presumably lengthy NFL career to look forward to. He said he’s not aspiring toward a political career — his focus is on international business — but I did pose to Shaw the hypothetical of J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Cory Booker establishing something of a pipeline to Washington.

“That would be awesome,” Shaw said.

“We’ve been able to hook different people up with Cory over the years,” the coach added. “He’s been an honorary captain for us, he tries to come by at least once a year to talk to the team. [Stanford quarterback] Jack West, he took a class trip to D.C. and I was able to connect the two of them this past offseason. They sent me a video from Cory’s office. … That’s the coolest thing in the world for a guy who hasn’t even started his college career, to meet a Stanford alum, a Stanford football player, who’s a U.S. Senator and he says, ‘Hey, give me a call when you want to chat.'”

Something to remember when watching the action on college football Saturday: The athletes involved are all still college students with aspirations bigger than football. Some will go on to have immeasurable impacts on social and political matters, like Gerald Ford or Cory Booker. And as much as you might want to keep politics out of football, politics have always been in football. They’re not going anywhere.