By JOSEPH WHITE, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — In a rare show of unity, President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney took turns praising Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III a couple of weeks ago for a video that aired on the Fox network's NFL pregame show. They uttered polished, rote lines such as Romney's "RG3 hasn't been in Washington very long, but he's already created change" and Obama's "You're welcome at my house for a pickup game anytime."
Politics injecting itself into sports, a ploy as old as the forward pass. Whether the sportsmen are actually paying attention is another matter.
Four years ago, it was hard to avoid political talk in some NFL locker rooms during the buildup to the Obama-McCain election. Players were leading voter registration drives. Teammates with adjacent lockers debated taxes. It got to the point that Cleveland Browns coach Romeo Crennel declared any discussion about the election at the team facility off-limits because he feared it would interfere with game preparations.
In 2012, it's just not the same.
"This year is more quiet," said Denver Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard. "Not to say that we weren't more focused on football back then, but we are really focused on football. But politics, it's kind of quiet. Nobody's said anything about it. You pretty much can tell how guys feel about the election, but nobody's really talking about it."
And, of course, it doesn't take a political science major to figure out why 2008 was a hotter topic.
"That was the first time an African-American had made it that far — and then a female vice-presidential candidate," Redskins defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. "There were a lot more bullet points to talk about."
That's not to say that the NFL players are living in a political vacuum this time around. Cofield said there's been some election talk in the Redskins weight room after every Obama-Romney debate, and teammates Stephen Bowen, Santana Moss and Trent Williams recently talked politics while sitting on the sofa outside the locker room.
"Everybody's tuned in to see what points Barack and Romney are making on different topics," Bowen said. "I'm very interested."
It's the political die-hards who are hooked by this election, players said, not the casual player-voter.
"Last time it seemed to be a little bit more popular in the mainstream," said Miami Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano, who supported McCain in 2008 and plans to vote for Romney on Tuesday. "And people with public images were speaking out a little more than I think they have this election. Our profession — and throughout the sports world and the entertainment world — I think everyone came together and put more effort into their support for whoever in 2008."
That doesn't stop the candidates from trying to win their support, although it helps to do some homework ahead of time. Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, visited a Browns practice earlier this month and mistakenly confused backup quarterback Colt McCoy for starter Brandon Weeden while speaking to a team huddle, hardly the kind of mistake one wants to make in a competitive state like Ohio.
"I think he saw the red jerseys and got us mixed up," Weeden said. "But he's got more important things on his mind right now than me and Colt. It was a good laugh."
No matter the election cycle, the conversations among the players often turn to a voting dilemma familiar to athletes in all of the major professional sports: Many come from working-class backgrounds, but now earn hefty salaries.
"Most of us aren't that far removed from not being well-paid, from being in that 47 percent that Romney spoke about. That's the way I look at it," Cofield said. I still remember being in that spot, so that's why I lean Democrat. But our paychecks scream Republican."
Beyond the locker room, the growth of social media has given the more politically savvy athletes new avenues for making their support known. Three NFL players — Matt Forte of the Chicago Bears, Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Antoine Bethea of the Indianapolis Colts — touted their support for Obama in a YouTube video titled "NFL Players Gotta Vote."
Then there's Twitter, which gives players an unfiltered forum to opine about the state of the election and the country in general. Among the more insightful is Arizona Cardinals kicker Jay Feely, a Romney supporter who has offered his play-by-play of the campaign — 140 characters at a time.
"I liked Romney's answers on his tax plan and energy independence. Obama had a much better answer on women's equality on business," Feely tweeted while watching the second debate.
Dolphins running back Reggie Bush no doubt spoke for many when he tweeted: "When President Obama and Mitt Romney go back and forth saying the other one is lying. How do you know who to believe? Lol!"
The Redskins naturally get drawn into the political discussion more than most teams, given that they play only a few miles from the White House. Those who crunch numbers love to point out that Washington has made the playoffs only once under a Democratic administration since 1945, or that the team's performance in its final home game before the election correlated flawlessly with the incumbent party's performance from 1936 to 2000, a quirky streak that was broken when the Redskins lost and President George W. Bush won re-election in 2004.
Staying above the fray is the player that united Obama and Romney in the Fox promo. Although Griffin is encouraging fans to vote, has met Obama and hopes at some point to take up the president's invitation for a pick-up basketball game, the 22-year-old star declined to state his political preference.
"There's three things you don't talk about: race, religion and politics. ... It only starts arguments," Griffin said.
Griffin said he didn't watch the debates and said he wasn't aware of any election talk in the locker room. Told of the conversation on the sofa that included Williams, Griffin said he has other things to discuss with the left tackle, who is responsible for protecting the quarterback's blind side.
"I don't talk to them about that," Griffin said. "It's not, 'Hey Trent, what did you think about that debate last night?' It's 'Hey, Trent, are you going to block that defensive end this week?'"
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton in Englewood, Colo., and AP Sports Writers Steven Wine in Davie, Fla., and Tom Withers in Berea, Ohio, contributed to this report.
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