Senate candidate can’t escape sports scandals

In the sports world, Craig James was a star football player for

Southern Methodist University and the New England Patriots. He

later became a household name in Texas as a television analyst for

ESPN.

Now that he’s running for the Senate, James can’t separate his

Republican politics from football, which accounts for nearly all of

his name recognition. But drawing attention to his athletic

exploits also means revisiting a pair of well-known scandals going

back to the 1980s.

So instead of fielding public-policy questions, he must

constantly fend off comments about how he took improper payments at

SMU and played a role in firing a popular Texas Tech coach.

”I’m ready to move on,” James, now 51, said last week in an

interview at an Austin restaurant. It won’t be easy in a state

where football inspires almost religious devotion, and fans cling

to long memories.

James, who has never run for office, says his years as a

small-town rancher, businessman and dad make him an ideal candidate

to bring common sense to Washington. His rookie campaign sticks to

broad conservative talking points: attacking President Barack Obama

on the federal health care law, protecting the Constitution,

cutting off illegal immigration and easing regulations on

business.

Recent polls have shown him far behind his rivals, and his

negative ratings among Texans are twice as high as his

positives.

”The negatives are coming at him from multiple sources,” said

Austin political consultant Bill Miller. ”This is the deal with

scandal: If it comes out early and you can get it behind you, you

can survive. If it always stays in front of you, it’s a killer.

He’s got to get it in a rearview mirror. We’ll see if he’s got the

wherewithal to make it happen.”

James played at SMU from 1979 to 1982 and was a major part of

the record-setting ”Pony Express” backfield with Eric Dickerson.

The Mustangs won Southwest Conference championships in 1981 and

1982, but the team was also embroiled in several NCAA

investigations.

In 1987, the NCAA hit SMU with the so-called ”death penalty”

for repeated infractions, shutting down the program for a year

after concluding that the school continued to pay players, even

after a 1985 promise to stop. SMU also chose not to play in

1988.

James had already been gone from SMU for several years when the

penalty was imposed, but he acknowledges taking ”insignificant

amounts” while playing there. He says he can’t remember how much

or who gave it to him. He dismisses it as the mistake of an

18-year-old kid who wasn’t mature enough to say no.

He and his teammates were ”the highest-profile people they’ve

ever seen play at SMU,” James said. But ”I don’t have anything to

run from or hide from. It is what it is.”

He’s also partly responsible for why an NCAA investigation from

the 1980s is still dogging him today.

James helped publicize the 2010 ESPN documentary ”Pony

Excess,” which dusted off the scandal for fans who didn’t know

about it or had forgotten the details behind college football’s

most famous corruption case.

James’ past also raises doubts among many Texas Tech fans who

blame him for the 2009 firing of coach Mike Leach. James complained

to school administrators that Leach mistreated his son Adam, a

former Red Raiders player, by twice ordering him to stand for hours

confined in a dark place after he got a concussion.

Leach denies mistreating the younger James and has said Craig

James was a meddling dad who badgered coaches to get his son more

playing time. Leach also contends an $800,000 bonus he was due on

Dec. 31, 2009, was the reason he was fired. Leach has sued the

university, ESPN and Craig James.

James knows the Leach saga is a liability in some parts of West

Texas where Texas Tech is the region’s major university. He hasn’t

campaigned yet in Lubbock but says he will and won’t be afraid to

defend his actions in the Leach firing.

He also had this for any voters holding a grudge: ”I’m going to

support my son against bullying acts. If someone doesn’t get that,

I don’t want their vote. Keep it.”

James picked a tough race for his political debut.

He didn’t join the Republican primary until Dec. 19, a late

start in a field already crowded with three-term Lt. Gov. David

Dewhurst, former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, former Dallas

Mayor Tom Leppert, plus several others. Those candidates all had a

long head start raising money and collecting endorsements.

To catch up, James said he’s wearing out his pickup truck

driving between Dallas, Houston and Austin meeting with ”anyone

who has money.” He acknowledges he may have to raise money outside

Texas and plans to ask former college and pro teammates, coaches

and celebrity friends for support.

James has connections among prominent Texas Republicans. Before

launching his campaign, he was a board member of the Texas Public

Policy Foundation, an Austin think tank influential with the state

GOP. His inner circle includes at least two heavyweight fundraisers

for Gov. Rick Perry and former President George W. Bush.

And despite his low polling numbers, James has been invited to

participate in two high-profile candidate forums.

The Republican primary is scheduled for April 3, but it could be

delayed depending on the outcome of legal challenges to

congressional voting districts. A later primary would give James

more time to raise money and promote his campaign.

James dismisses a suggestion he’s considered a long shot and

believes he was called by God to run for office.

”That doesn’t mean God says, `You’re going to win, Craig,”’ he

said. ”But I would far rather have done this than let God down and

not do what he had called me to do.”