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After endorsing cologne, cereal and sneakers over the course of his NBA career, basketball icon Michael Jordan finally plunged into the political field last week by endorsing a candidate for President of the United States.
Jordan's choice for leader of the free world is Bill Bradley, himself another former basketball star. In desperate need of positive press after successive losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, Bradley's campaign unveiled a 30-second advertisement featuring Jordan explaining his support for Bradley. Jordan joins the pantheon of NBA stars who have endorsed their former colleague. In another spot, Bill Russell encouraged voters to support Bradley in the Iowa caucuses, the embodiment of the slogan "Another Celtic Fan for Bill Bradley."
The Bradley campaign fervently hopes that Jordan's endorsement will raise voter awareness of their candidate. As quite possibly the most recognized man on the planet, Jordan's image has been smashingly successful at selling just about any product. It remains to be seen, however, how effective he can be at selling voters on a political candidate.
Bradley's lineup of other NBA All-Stars has not brought him victories. He lost the Iowa caucuses, in spite of Russell's ad. Shaquille O'Neal gained more publicity for an ill-advised comment on the Pythagorean theorem than for his endorsement of Bradley. Former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson is running Bradley's Illinois campaign, but at this rate Bradley may not make it to the Illinois primary.
It appears sports stars are more successful at convincing adolescents to buy snazzy sneakers than they are at persuading voters to support political candidates. People realize that while Shaq may dominate under the basket, he ought not to control the ballot box.
Celebrity endorsements have long been a peculiar piece of the American political tradition. They have rarely had any measurable effect on the outcome of a race. Americans, fortunately, tend to evaluate political candidates based on message and ideology rather than celebrity support. The Presidency isn't like a high school election, where the kid on the baseball team with the most popular friends wins.
It is startling, however, that sports figures and other celebrities can attempt to so blatantly transfer their popularity into political support, occasionally without even superficial justification. In his advertisement for Bradley, Bill Russell did not mention Bradley's support of initiatives in race relations. He didn't mention Bradley's plans to reduce handgun violence. The advertisement opened with "Bill Russell for Bill Bradley" on the screen. The rest of the spot was dedicated to Russell urging Iowan voters to participate in the caucus, with nary an explanation of Russell's support for Bradley. It came across as a basketball star endorsing another basketball star, with absolutely no substance behind it.
Before this year, Jordan had never endorsed a political candidate. He realized that people respected and admired him for his kindness, charisma and virtually unparalleled athletic achievements, without regard for his private political views.
The Bradley campaign hopes that Jordan's immense popularity will be able to sell their candidate better than they have been able to do themselves. History is not on their side. Ultimately, the decision will be up to the voters. Super Tuesday, March 7, is not far away.
-David M. DeBartolo
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