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Senate candidate can't escape sports scandals

Published: Sunday, Aug. 2 2015 2:23 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this March 13, 2010 file photo, ESPN analyst and former NFL player Craig James, center, speaks with his attorney James Drakeley, right, and Scott McLaughlin, before entering the Texas Tech Administration Building to give a sworn statement in regards to the firing of former Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach in Lubbock, Texas. Now that he?s running for the Senate, James can?t separate his 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.  (AP Photo/Geoffrey McAllister, File) (Associated Press) FILE - In this March 13, 2010 file photo, ESPN analyst and former NFL player Craig James, center, speaks with his attorney James Drakeley, right, and Scott McLaughlin, before entering the Texas Tech Administration Building to give a sworn statement in regards to the firing of former Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach in Lubbock, Texas. Now that he?s running for the Senate, James can?t separate his 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. (AP Photo/Geoffrey McAllister, File) (Associated Press)

AUSTIN, Texas — 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.

Former ESPN commentator and football star running back Craig James running for U.S. Senate seat in Texas. (Associated Press) Former ESPN commentator and football star running back Craig James running for U.S. Senate seat in Texas. (Associated Press)

"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.

FILE - In this March 12, 2010 file photo, former Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach, left, arrives with his attorney Ted Liggett to give a videotaped deposition in Lubbock, Texas. Former ESPN commentator and Republican candidate for Senate Craig James wants to talk about foreign and domestic policy, yet he can?t avoid questions or comments about a pair of high-profile college scandals, one when he was 25 years old and another from 2009 that has him tangled in lawsuits that threaten to swamp his campaign for the U.S. Senate in the Republican primary. James? ongoing legal entanglements with Leach have also made him on unpopular figure for many Texas Tech fans who blame him for the popular coach?s firing. (AP Photo/Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Zach Long) (Associated Press) FILE - In this March 12, 2010 file photo, former Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach, left, arrives with his attorney Ted Liggett to give a videotaped deposition in Lubbock, Texas. Former ESPN commentator and Republican candidate for Senate Craig James wants to talk about foreign and domestic policy, yet he can?t avoid questions or comments about a pair of high-profile college scandals, one when he was 25 years old and another from 2009 that has him tangled in lawsuits that threaten to swamp his campaign for the U.S. Senate in the Republican primary. James? ongoing legal entanglements with Leach have also made him on unpopular figure for many Texas Tech fans who blame him for the popular coach?s firing. (AP Photo/Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Zach Long) (Associated Press)

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.

FILE - In this 1982 file photo, Southern Methodist running backs Craig James, left and Eric Dickerson stand on the sideline during a Soutwest Conference Game in Irving, Texas. James wants to talk about foreign and domestic policy, yet he can?t avoid questions or comments about a pair of high-profile college scandals, one 25 years old and another from 2009 that has him tangled in lawsuits, and threaten to swamp his campaign for the U.S. Senate in the Republican primary. (AP Photo, File) (Eric Gay, Associated Press) FILE - In this 1982 file photo, Southern Methodist running backs Craig James, left and Eric Dickerson stand on the sideline during a Soutwest Conference Game in Irving, Texas. James wants to talk about foreign and domestic policy, yet he can?t avoid questions or comments about a pair of high-profile college scandals, one 25 years old and another from 2009 that has him tangled in lawsuits, and threaten to swamp his campaign for the U.S. Senate in the Republican primary. (AP Photo, File) (Eric Gay, Associated Press)

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.

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