ESPN’s Craig James weighing Senate run

Eric McErlain Sports Blogger
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The field of candidates looking to replace U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) may be about to get a little bit bigger, as ESPN analyst Craig James is reportedly considering a run. Earlier today, a spokesman for the sports cable network confirmed to the Associated Press that James, 50, has taken a leave of absence from the network in order to decide whether to enter the race.

James, who played running back at Southern Methodist University alongside Eric Dickerson in the “Pony Express” backfield in the early 1980s, started his broadcasting career immediately after his retirement from professional football in 1989. Before joining ESPN, James spent time with both ABC and CBS Sports.

While politics might not immediately come to mind when you think of James, he seems to have been quietly laying the foundation for a career in politics for some time. He’s a board member of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank currently chaired by Wendy Lee Gramm, the wife of former Texas GOP Senator Phil Gramm. Earlier this year, James established Texans for a Better America, an organization dedicated to supporting free markets, limited government and “American exceptionalism.”

James’s reputation is pretty darn near squeaky clean. Despite the fact that he played at SMU during the era that earned the school the NCAA “death penalty,” James was never connected to any malfeasance.

More recently, James was apparently involved in an effort to oust former Texas Tech head football coach Mike Leach. The two came into conflict after Leach allegedly mistreated James’s son, a wide receiver for Texas Tech.

Just yesterday, Leach was interviewed by one of James’s ESPN colleagues, Scott Van Pelt, on Van Pelt’s radio show. And from the tenor of his comments, it’s clear Leach isn’t ready to forgive and forget:

Obviously the smearing and the passing along of misinformation definitely had a chilling effect. I think also as the information ‘s come out, everybody’s seen my position is entirely accurate, I think that’s clarified a lot of things. But when you have a national broadcaster, I think we all know who I’m talking about — he thinks he’s going to be senator — dissatisfied with his son’s playing time and used ESPN as a platform to fire a sitting head coach, then hired a PR firm before he even complains about everything, obviously there’s going to be some negative information passed around. It’s all proven to be false and I think the majority of people see it that way. I think that it’s all turned out well, but it’s unfortunate that I had to squander two years of my career just for kind of selfish personal interests.

The filing deadline to enter the race is on Monday, and James has already pulled out of working the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl on Tuesday night to mull over his decision. But while James may want to be a U.S. senator, one has to wonder just how much attention a run would draw to his conflict with Leach, a man who doesn’t seem terribly willing to back down.

Eric McErlain blogs at Off Wing Opinion, a Forbes “Best of the Web” winner. In 2006 he wrote a “bloggers bill of rights” to help integrate bloggers into the Washington Capitals’ press box. Eric has also written for Deadspin, NBC Sports and the Sporting News, and covers sports television for The TV News. Follow Eric on Twitter.