Sports, Race And Politics

Jack Kemp had just emerged from the airport terminal in New Orleans when a 6-foot-3, 255-pound black man came up to him, bowing and shuffling his feet, his head tilted down in deference. "Mr. Kemp, sir, is it all right for us, sir, to ride in your cab?" the man asked. The year was 1965 and Kemp, then quarterback for the Buffalo Bills football team, recognized the sarcasm of his friend Carlton Chester (Cookie) Gilchrist, the team's star fullback. "Quit kiddin'," Kemp said. The cabby, Gilchrist explained, said he wouldn't take him as a passenger unless he was with Kemp's group of white men and they didn't mind sitting with a black. "He was very innocent and naive," Gilchrist remembers of Kemp, now secretary of housing and urban development. "He was stunned."

President Bush hasn't always been a big fan of Kemp's, but he has agreed to allow the HUD secretary to speak in prime time during next week's Republican convention. The Democrats featured Sen. Bill Bradley, a former pro basketball player, as a keynote speaker last month at their convention. That both parties turned to ex-athletes would be mere human interest but for the particular role each man is playing: designated hitter on the issue of race. Bradley had drawn attention with a series of impassioned speeches demanding that the nation address racial justice with greater urgency. The White House mobilized Kemp after the L.A. riots, when the administration realized he was the only white GOP figure with credibility among blacks. Although the party won't be emphasizing racial harmony as a campaign theme, aides hope that Kemp, a free-market enthusiast, can appeal to conservatives and minorities at the same time. "I could not live with myself as HUD secretary, and go back and face my friends Ernie Ladd, Cookie Gilchrist or Tippy Day or all the black football players I know and lived with and lost and won with, if I were not their voice in the cabinet," Kemp says. "It is my way of redeeming my existence on this earth."

What is it about sports that seems to help knock down racial walls? Kemp and Bradley built interracial friendships that many white politicians don't have. Both have heard their black friends describe discrimination, and both have witnessed some. Kemp recalls that the San Diego Chargers couldn't stay in the posh Shamrock Hilton in Dallas in the early 1960s because the hotel wouldn't take black guests-even though the team was owned by Barron Hilton, who also owned the hotel. Bradley remembers when star guard Earl Monroe got into a fistfight with whites who harassed him outside Madison Square Garden. "Two hours after Earl thrills 20,000 people with his skill," Bradley has written, "he is just another 'nigger' to part of white America-even a half block from center court." Other encounters were more comic: a fan once sat next to the Knicks' Dick Barnett on a plane and asked, "Why do you colored fellas wear all those funny hats?"

Just as important, though, were the moments that were not racially tinged. "The huddle is colorblind," says John Mackey, a former Baltimore Colt and a friend of Kemp's. Gilchrist says his friendship with Kemp grew because he kept his teammate from getting mauled by bloodthirsty linebackers. Sports has had plenty of problems with racism over the years, but it has one advantage over other occupations: competence can be measured easily. It is one of the few areas blacks and whites both consider meritocratic, with each race being judged by the same standards.

Sports also forces players to take an immersion course in the language of the other race. "If someone tells [Kemp] he's a 'bad M.F.' he knows that's a compliment," says Mackey. Teammate Thomas (Tippy) Day used to call Kemp "Jackson-just to put some black in him." But Bradley says he also learned that there were limits to how much he could understand about being black. Teammate Walt Frazier has described Bradley as the "least prejudiced player I've ever met," but added that "particularly with the black players, he seemed to be on the outside looking in." Ironically, this sense of isolation gave Bradley something else in common with African-Americans: as a white on a majority-black team, Bradley felt like a minority. "It was kind of lonely," he says now.

The future of race relations obviously does not depend on all Americans developing a good jump shot. What lessons can be transferred from sports to other settings? On one level, the experiences of Bradley and Kemp seem to argue for aggressive integration of housing, schools and work so that the races will mix more. But their cases also teach that racial understanding grows best when there is no suspicion of favoritism, which is perhaps an argument against some forms of affirmative action.

Kemp and Bradley have processed their racial lessons differently. Bradley emphasizes increased federal spending on cities, while Kemp pushes free-market solutions like enterprise zones and tenant-owned low-income housing. While he is proud of how sports made him more sensitive, Kemp also speaks with some regret about not playing a role in earlier civil-rights battles. "I wasn't there with Rosa Parks or Dr. King or John Lewis," he says. "But I am here now."