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Bill Bradley's Shocking Past
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Bill Bradley, former New Jersey senator, former presidential candidate, former basketball star, is one of the great unsung heroes of American culture.

It sounds crazy, I know, but throughout his entire 10-year career as an NBA superstar with the New York Knicks a quarter-century ago, Bradley actually refused to endorse products or engage in any of the other immensely profitable commercial ventures so readily available to celebrated athletes.

Look at this from Bradley's 1976 book, "Life on the Run":

"Perhaps I wanted no part of an advertising industry which created socially useless personal needs and then sold a product to meet those needs .... More probably I wanted to keep my experience of basketball ... as innocent and unpolluted by commercialism as possible .... Taking money for hawking products [would have] demeaned my experience of the game. I cared about basketball. I didn't give a damn about perfumes, shaving lotions, clothes, or special foods."

Imagine that coming from Tiger Woods or any of today's other superstars who make millions for helping merchandisers peddle goods and services to impressionable youngsters and star-struck adults.

The commercial money is of course in addition to their multi-million-dollar salaries. Obviously they don't need the money. But as long as it's available they'll grab it.

It's mainly men who've been making the big money, but with the rise of women's professional sports women are increasingly doing it too. Basketball star Chamique Holdsclaw, for instance, was signed to a multi-year contract with Nike. That, said a company director excitedly, would "help us better reach our teen consumer."

Even the Olympic athletes who are supposedly the best this country has to offer are in on it, their medal-winning performances earning them the golden chance to try to sell us breakfast food, flashlight batteries and such.

Coaches can also profit, most notably college basketball coaches. They can make $10,000 to $100,000 a year -- sometimes even more -- for wearing certain brands of ostentatiously labeled sweaters and sweatshirts during televised games or even news conferences, for doing radio and TV commercials and otherwise pitching for products, most lucratively by outfitting their teams in particular brands of footgear.

Peculiar conduct, don't you think, for a group whose job description includes helping mold the character of young men. The coaches, in any case, are as eager as the others who happily sell their services to commercial interests.

How can they resist? As actor Robert Young acknowledged in explaining why he became a TV pitchman after years of turning down commercials as demeaning, "It's a license to steal."

Yet you won't hear many complaints about that even from those who are being hustled. The hustlers are in fact elevated in public esteem.

Rarely are they reproached for their attempts to sell us goods and services they tout only because they are paid to tout them. On the contrary. They become more celebrated. And the more celebrated they become, the more commercial opportunities they are offered and the richer they become at the expense of those who celebrate them.

Bill Bradley noted that their very wealth increases their credibility and legitimacy, since ours is "a materialistic society which believes money earned accurately measures accomplishment." They become celebrities "perfectly cast to tickle the consumer appetites of affluent America."

Think of O.J. Simpson, widely admired before his murder trial at least as much for his car rental commercials as for his football exploits.

You do have to admire the athletes' entrepreneurial spirit. Consider Michael Jordan, the greatest hustler of them all.

On returning to basketball after taking a year off to play professional baseball, for instance, he shrewdly changed his basketball jersey number from No. 23 to No. 45 so as to generate still more sales of replicas to the fans who spend more than $12 billion a year on jerseys, shoes and other products bearing the names of their heroes. Not to mention the billions more they spend on the wide variety of goods and services endorsed by Jordan and others.

"I exist, therefore I earn -- that was Jordan's career-governing principle," noted sportswriter Harvey Araton.

Michael Jordan, unfortunately, is not alone. There are few, if any, celebrities in sports or any other field with the integrity of Bill Bradley, few who refuse the opportunity to make big bucks for hustling us.

Copyright Dick Meister