Robert Gehrke: Burgess Owens is realizing politics is a contact sport — just like the NFL

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

For a decade, Burgess Owens patrolled NFL secondaries playing free safety for the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders, a position known, especially then, for dishing out and taking punishing hits.

Now he’s in politics, running as the Republican candidate in Utah’s 4th Congressional District and getting a moment in the spotlight — he spoke Wednesday, endorsing President Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention.

He’s also coming to learn that politics, like the NFL, is a contact sport.

Since winning the Republican primary, Owens has taken his share of shots and his response has come from the Trump playbook — accuse the media of being a bunch of biased left-wingers bent on taking him down.

“If our friends in the media really wanted us to stop attacking their integrity, they’d develop some,” Owens tweeted Tuesday.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Burgess Owens, former NFL player and now 4th District GOP nominee for Congress, pictured near his home in Draper, Utah on Thursday, July 3, 2020.

Sen. Mike Lee has criticized KSL for, as he put it, “trashing” Owens. And the Utah Republican Party on Wednesday criticized his Democratic opponent, Rep. Ben McAdams, saying it is “disappointing to see a sitting member of Congress engage in ugly personal attacks.”

Unlike football, you can’t complain to the referees and beg for a 5-yard penalty. The voters are the referees and Owens is counting on his voters sticking with him no matter what.

The problem is that the news about Owens in recent weeks has not, in this referee’s eyes, been out of the ordinary. In fact, it is part of the game.

A candidate’s history — particularly an unknown first-time candidate — will come under scrutiny by the media and opponents as much as that person’s positions on the issues. It’s part of the normal vetting process that we rely on to make sure we have qualified, credible people representing us.

This week, Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group, accused Owens of copying-and-pasting significant portions of his 2018 book, “Why I Stand,” in some instances including endnotes attributing passages to Wikipedia or other sources, but not indicating that the portions of the book had been copied virtually verbatim.

A spokesman for the Owens campaign said Wednesday night that Owens cited the sources used in his book, but “it comes as no surprise that the mainstream media would continue to push the false narrative that Burgess ‘plagiarized’ passages, given they prop up the Democrat Party whose nominee believes a Black man cannot think for himself.”

Nobody insinuated that “a Black man cannot think for himself,” but this is the pattern from Owens of complaining to the refs when you take a clean hit.

After former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon was arrested last week for allegedly defrauding donors who had given money to his “We Build The Wall” charity, Media Matters reported that Owens had participated in an online “Wall-a-Thon” designed to raise money for the construction of a border wall.

“I love what you’re doing,” he said during the interview, before disparaging immigrants.

Responding to the criticism, Owens told ABC 4 News, “I didn’t raise money. I don’t know where that came from. I did an interview. ... I have nothing to do with Steve Bannon.”

It’s hard to believe he didn’t put the clues together, that a “Wall-A-Thon” was a telethon for the build-the-wall group, even if he didn’t know it was a fraud. And it’s a legitimate issue for voters to consider.

He, likewise, has said he didn’t know a program he was interviewed on in 2019 was hosted by proponents of outlandish QAnon conspiracy theories. The QAnon movement, you probably know by now, peddles the ridiculous notion that there is a vast satanic pedophilia and cannibalism ring involving politicians and actors, and the president is trying to dismantle it.

Owens has tweeted his support to candidates who have embraced the QAnon nonsense and his supporters who are aligned with the group. Once again, his campaign says he didn’t know what QAnon was, but at some point it’s reasonable to ask if he should understand the group if he plans to serve in Congress.

It should come as no surprise that Owens’ involvement in a 2012 class-action lawsuit filed by former NFL players alleging repeated concussions caused permanent damage would be an issue. In the lawsuit, Owens submitted a complaint that he had suffered symptoms of a brain injury and loss of memory and impulse control.

The NFL settled the lawsuit and his campaign said he was tested and found not to have any adverse effects. So what happened? Did he get better? Or was his 2012 filing misleading? Again, it is an issue for voters to judge.

So are his numerous bankruptcies and his unpaid tax bills — which he initially said were more than $1 million on his personal financial disclosure, but he later said were in error and he filed an amended disclosure showing $6,500 in debt to the IRS.

He has missed the filing deadline for his last financial disclosure.

Owens proved himself to be a tough guy on the football field. He still relishes that image, writing a book called “Liberalism or How to Turn Good Men Into Whiners, Weenies and Wimps.”

Now that he is running for one of the most hotly contested and pivotal congressional seats in the country, Owens is going to get roughed up. If he can take the blows, dust himself off and push forward, he has a chance of winning the race.

If his decision is to blame the media and whine for a penalty flag, he’s going to have a long, painful road ahead, because vetting candidates is very much part of the process, and politics at the level he’s playing now is not flag football.