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No debate: Student-athletes benefit from presidential experience

By Marta Lawrence

This year’s presidential election is an experience dozens of NCAA student-athletes will never forget. With all three of the debates being held at college campuses, student-athletes were among the attendees candidates were hoping to influence.

On Oct. 3 at the University of Denver, junior lacrosse player Teddy MacKenzie nearly missed the opportunity to see President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney in their first presidential debate held in the university’s hockey arena. MacKenzie and three teammates who won tickets to the event in a university-wide raffle had to hustle to make it on time. “We were the last kids in the door,” he said.

Once there, MacKenzie and about 100 other students were transported to another building where they went through a security screen. Finally, the group was bused to the venue, where they received a catered meal in the facility lobby and waited another two hours before they were ushered to their seats. Although most of the students were in the stands above the debate floor, MacKenzie and his teammates were given seats on the floor – 12 rows away from the candidates.

“We were surrounded by a lot of important people,” MacKenzie said, adding that a man nearby was passing a business card and accidently dropped it, allowing MacKenzie to see he was the mayor of Philadelphia.

MacKenzie said the event had aspects of a sporting event, “but it was way more mellow.”

“There wasn’t as much cheering,” he said. “It was more like people were cheering for the process going on and being part of history.”

MacKenzie, who is from Montana but plans to vote in Colorado, said the experience helped pique his interest in politics. He has two older brothers, one in the military, and he has seen the impact the economy has on recent graduates.

“It was really an eye-opener. It’s unfortunate that not everyone can be a part of something like that. If people were, I feel like they would definitely be more involved in politics,” he said. “It definitely is a huge factor in our lives, because who gets the presidency next affects my job situation and how life will play out.”

The experience was similar for the 11 student-athletes that attended the Oct. 16 debate at Hofstra’s David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex. Freshman cross country runner Sean Flannery said the tone was decidedly different than the Denver debate.

“The town hall style definitely lent itself more toward that aggressive attitude because they weren’t behind a podium, they were actually there in each others’ faces,” Flannery said. “They had that freedom to move around, so I saw more aggressiveness and confidence from both as they went at each other.”

Junior lacrosse student-athlete Torin Varn said he could hear the crowd react throughout the debate. Although they were told to remain quiet, “You’d hear some clapping, you’d hear some booing, you’d hear some cheering,” he said.

Like the Denver debate, Hostra students were entered into a lottery, and about 300 students ended up being among the 1,000 spectators.

“Hosting a presidential debate was an extraordinary experience for our students and faculty in 2008 and again this year by allowing our community to witness first-hand the democratic process and the intense debates around national elections,” said Hofstra President Stuart Rabinowitz. “In addition, through our volunteer program and event series, Hofstra students have the opportunity to become involved in an active and meaningful way.”

“I’m a first-time voter this year and I’ve never really paid much attention to politics in the past,” Varn said. “This is the first year that I really started to follow the debate and the presidential election. To be able to actually go to a debate was a really cool experience.”

The final debate at Lynn University focused on foreign policy – something international relations major Ellen Chambers knows a lot about. Chambers, a junior on the Fighting Knights’ golf team and an Australian native, took note of the money being poured into the campaign. “The amount of spending here just blows my mind,” she said.

Soccer player A.B. Magnusson, an MBA graduate and a native of Iceland, said presidential candidates in his home country do not participate in debates at all.

Magnusson got a first-hand look at the benefits of living in swing state when he and a friend ate at a burger joint in nearby Delray Beach. Gov. Romney showed up, and Magnusson had his picture taken with Romney and was able to have a brief conversation.

“I still can’t believe I was there (at the debate). It was amazing,” he said. “I haven’t even seen the president of Iceland and now I’ve seen the president of the United States. Politics haven’t really interested me before, but I’m definitely more interested now.”

Lynn was the perfect setting for the foreign policy debate, given that international students make up about 30 percent of all students there. Of the approximately 120 tickets distributed to students, 30 were given to student-athletes.

Freshman Morgan Glazer was lucky enough to receive a ticket, especially since the swimmer decided to attend Lynn based in part on the university hosting the debate. “Being able to go to the actual debate was a huge opportunity,” she said.

Glazer, who is from Tallahassee, Fla., plans to vote by absentee ballot.

Junior volleyball student-athlete Angie Caple and Chambers were selected as ushers for the debate. To work the event, they had to be nominated by a faculty member and pass a background screen given by the Secret Service. Caple was 10 rows from the stage and said she was able to spot VIPs in the crowd, including broadcaster Tom Brokaw and former presidential candidate John McCain.

“Millions of students across America are never going to have the kind of opportunity we had,” Chambers said. “It’s something that I value and will always remember.”


Political influence

NCAA student-athletes have a long history of service as elected officials in the highest levels of government. Former U.S. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower (Army, football), Gerald R. Ford (Michigan, football), Ronald Reagan (Eureka College, swimming, football and track) and George H.W. Bush (Yale, baseball) were collegiate athletes.

Other distinguished athletes in politics include former presidential candidate Bob Dole (Washburn, football, basketball and track) and his running mate Jack Kemp (Occidental, football). Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois), former speaker of the House, was a wrestler at Wheaton (Illinois) and later coached a high school team.

Senator and astronaut John Glenn (Muskingum, football), Sen. George Mitchell (basketball, Bowdoin), Congressman, Senator and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen (Bowdoin, basketball), Congressman Bill Richardson and Congressman Bob Mathias were each awarded the Theodore Roosevelt Award – the NCAA’s highest honor. Senator and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander (Vanderbilt, track and field) also received the award, as did former Massachusetts Gov. Leverett Saltonstall (Harvard, rowing).

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright (Wellesley, swimming, rowing and field hockey) received the award in 2009. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics and sister of Robert Kennedy (Harvard, football) and Edward Kennedy (Harvard, football) was also honored with the Teddy in 2002.

President Eisenhower was the first recipient of the Teddy in 1967. Ford (1975), Reagan (1990) and Bush (1986) also received the award.