Empty Jocks

Empty Jocks

Empty Jocks

How you look at things.
Nov. 16 1999 3:30 AM

Empty Jocks

Sunday afternoon, 20 of history's greatest basketball players headlined a Madison Square Garden fund-raiser for Bill Bradley. Bradley's former New York Knicks teammates Dick Barnett, Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier, Jerry Lucas, Earl Monroe, and Willis Reed sang Bradley's praises, as did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Cousy, Julius Erving, John Havlicek, Moses Malone, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, and Bill Walton. The event, complete with cheerleaders, movie stars, and lights and music reminiscent of an NBA game, enthralled the press. "Bradley Throws Garden Party, Scores," whooped the Washington Post.

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Bradley has pitched himself as a man of substance in a world corrupted by glitz. As Russell put it at the gala, "In these days of spin control, Bill Bradley is one of the most honest people I've ever met." So it's worth asking whether the jocks' media blitz for Bradley, punctuated by their full-court press on Sunday's political talk shows, conveyed anything of substance. The question posed by NBC's Tim Russert--"Why do former opponents and teammates support Bill Bradley for president?"--raises a prior question: Why should we care?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

On the talk shows, the players testified that Bradley is "intelligent," "knowledgeable," "well-rounded," "compassionate," "concerned," "wonderful," "a great leader," "a great listener," and "a good person." They applauded his "honesty," "integrity," "respect," and "quiet strength." They recalled that he "played very hard," "played by the rules," and "was always interested in the needs of people." They asserted that he "loves his country" and seeks "the good of as many people as possible."

These platitudes are probably true. But why did they dominate the three major networks Sunday morning? What light do they shed on Bradley's presidential competence or agenda? On Meet the Press, DeBusschere argued that the ex-athletes "know [Bradley] as a man" and that voters should "listen to what celebrities have to say about a man that they all respect and have known very well." That explanation, however, turns out not to be true of many of Bradley's jocks. On Face the Nation, Erving conceded that he had never played against Bradley and knew little about him until this year. Cousy told the same story: "My wife and I jumped on board the minute the senator called. … I didn't have a personal relationship."

The jocks who knew Bradley as an athlete failed to name anything he had accomplished in politics. Nevertheless, they praised his political career. "He's had good leadership qualities as a senator," said Lucas. DeBusschere agreed: "He's a leader. He was when he first came into the political scene. … He was going to study and learn … and I think he's done that." Russell added, "He's had some experience in national politics. And then he got away for a while … which is sometimes very helpful." Again, how do the assertions of former basketball players clarify this question? Unable to produce evidence, they extrapolated from sports to politics. Bradley believed in "passing and getting other people involved in the game," Reed argued on This Week. "That's what Bill's about, and what he'd do in his politics: getting everybody involved in the game."

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The jocks were plainly ignorant of the issues. "Old jocks don't know a lot about the Balkans and the Middle East solutions or campaign-finance reform and all," confessed Cousy. On Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer told Erving, "Well, Dr. J, since you're the doctor here, I guess I ought to ask you about health care." The question sounded like a joke, but it wasn't, and Erving answered it. "I'm a proponent of Bill's position," he replied, citing "Bill's health care plan, which I got a chance to read last night."

Bradley's campaign has been long on sentiment and short on solutions. The athletes' testimonials did nothing to remedy that deficit. DeBusschere praised him for "caring and going out and saying things and doing things about" race relations. Reed called for racial "enlightenment" and predicted, "Bill will try to make that happen." Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson observed, "Skin color is an immediate reaction to people, and this is something that we have to overcome. This is something Bill sees." Cousy boasted that Bradley "makes human rights a cornerstone, really, in terms of his priorities … All those problems stem, obviously, from man's inhumanity to man. … So I'm happy to see Bill focusing on, you know, just getting people to get along together on a domestic and a worldwide level."

Cousy argued that Bradley's jock advocates should be taken seriously because they're "concerned about issues" and unencumbered by the "baggage" of immorality that disqualifies many celebrity athletes. Bradley "has been very selective in terms of the celebrities that he has asked to jump on board," said Cousy. "If we're all pretty good guys and we've lived our lives properly, then, hey, why don't you listen to us in this case and vote for Bill Bradley?" No doubt Cousy has lived his life properly. So have my neighbors. And they don't get on Meet the Press.

Stripped of their rationalizations, Bradley's jocks fall back on the argument that their opinions are important simply because they're celebrities. "Look at America and what America is all about," Robertson argued. "Basketball is America's game. … People come to games to see these stars play. Stars have such influence on Americans today. And it's just apropos for me to be here to say that Bill Bradley's a person who can generalize all these people together." On Late Edition, Bradley said of his basketball pals, "Why wouldn't you reach out to your friends? … I'd be stupid if I didn't do that."

If the jocks don't know why Bradley should be president, why are they endorsing him? Because they think their association with him helps their image as well as his. "Not too many jocks are Rhodes Scholars," observed Cousy, arguing that Bradley "personifies" the virtues of team sports. "Thirty years ago, everybody was a dumb jock who played sports," sniffed DeBusschere. "Bill, I think, has proven … that a basketball player, baseball player, football player are very intelligent people and that type of stigma attached to you is not worthy."

But are the jocks serving Bradley well? At best, they're helping him exploit the superficial, elitist politics he claims to be campaigning against. That's what happened on Meet the Press, where Russert, after hosting Bradley's jocks for much of the show, explained the absence of a Gore representative by reporting, "We asked the Al Gore campaign to provide celebrities who would support him. They declined."

At worst, the jocks are hurting Bradley by failing to comprehend and refute misrepresentations of his agenda. That's what happened on Face the Nation, where Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile accused Bradley of endangering "African-Americans and all other minorities and Hispanics" by trying to "eliminate Medicaid." What Bradley needed was a policy expert who could block Brazile's cheap shot. Instead, the task of defending Bradley fell to Erving, who shrugged that "it's probably a debatable issue, but knowing Sen. Bradley, he is, you know, the type of individual who has always been fair." With that response, Erving negated his layup for Bradley by yielding a three-pointer to Brazile. That's the problem with basketball stars. They can score, but they can't play D.