Assisting Bradley, Roberts says, was not a `political statement'


November 19, 1999|By Milton Kent

When former New York Knick Bill Bradley extended an invitation to Robin Roberts to be a part of a program that included some of Bradley's teammates from the 1970 and '73 NBA championship teams, it sounded like a chance of a lifetime.

"He [Bradley] said they were going to recreate the moment when Willis Reed came limping out on the court at the Garden, and Walt Frazier and Dave DeBusschere were going to be there. My eyes got as big as saucers," Roberts said.

And if nostalgia had been the only thing on the menu, then the "Back in the Garden" fund-raiser Sunday at Madison Square Garden would have been the stuff of which dreams are made.

But Roberts, one of ESPN's most visible "SportsCenter" anchors, has had a bit of a nightmarish week fielding questions about her involvement as emcee, while maintaining her involvement did not represent an endorsement of Bradley's candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, or worse yet, compromise her objectivity as a journalist.

"By no means was I making a political statement," Roberts said. "I just looked at it as a good time and a great opportunity."

Roberts said she ran into Bradley about a month ago when the two were coincidentally at the same Iowa location, and the former New Jersey senator asked her to host Sunday's program. She said she did not formally ask her ESPN employers for permission, feeling that her role in the program was innocuous.

However, word of the event had spread, and top-level management at ESPN knew about the program, but did not attempt to encourage or dissuade her from taking part, Roberts said.

In fact, most of the flap that Roberts has taken has stemmed not from her association with ESPN, but rather with her connection to ABC News and "Good Morning America," which is run by the network's news division.

Roberts, who has been a "GMA" substitute anchor roughly 10 times, said the perception of her political involvement is more acutely important on the news side than with ESPN.

Roberts said she was to have done a story on the event for ABC News, but, after consulting with producers, decided not to, over the perception that her appearance might have made her seemed biased toward Bradley.

But, with this mini-controversy added to a recent flap over Dan Patrick's participation in an ad for a beer company, ESPN has found itself in a bit of a quandary.

On the one hand, its employees should be free to pursue their own interests, but at what point does a company's need to protect its own image supersede the employees' desire to live their own lives?

ESPN executive editor John A. Walsh said the company is feeling its way through those very issues and is looking to come up with a plan that everyone can live with.

"We're looking at some of these instances for the first time. After we live through these experiences, we'll be better equipped to talk about policy," Walsh said. "ESPN's credibility as a news organization has a splendid reputation and that's what counts."

Swamp thing

Games like Florida State-Florida showdown (Channel 13, 3: 30 p.m. tomorrow) are the kind that convinced CBS lead college football analyst Todd Blackledge that it was time to leave the studio and get out into the booth.

"Football is being out and seeing the game in person," said Blackledge, who was ABC's studio analyst for three years. "The studio helped me to have a better sense of the big picture, but I need to be at the stadium."

The game will go a long way to determining one of the participants in the Bowl Championship Series national title game in the Sugar Bowl in January and will be played at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, one of the nation's loudest venues.

If the Seminoles, who haven't won in Gainesville since 1993, can get over the hostility they'll face at the Swamp, Blackledge says they have enough talent to win. And he expects Peter Warrick, the Seminoles wide receiver who faced theft charges, to be the key to Florida State's efforts.

"He's back and the team is probably back and the distractions are in the past, so they should be ready for the Gators," Blackledge said.

Around the dial

The other major college football game tomorrow, or at the one with the most local importance, is Maryland's regular-season finale against Virginia (Channel 24, noon). The Terps have a bowl berth riding on the outcome -- and who thought that was possible when the season began?

Meanwhile, the college basketball season is already in full swing, and locally, the big story is the Battle of Baltimore. Channel 2 will air tonight's semifinals, with the Loyola-Towson game airing at 7 p.m., followed by the UMBC-Coppin State clash immediately after. The winners advance to the title game at 9 p.m. tomorrow, and Scott Garceau and Keith Mills will have the call.

Speaking of college hoops, Maryland men's coach Gary Williams is keeping a weekly diary on CNN/SI's Web site, with new entries each Wednesday.

On the NFL pre-game show front, Jerry Glanville and Seattle coach Mike Holmgren ride Harleys together for a feature on Sunday's "The NFL Today" (Channel 13, noon), while Nick Charles sits down with former North Carolina men's basketball coach Dean Smith on "Page One" at 7: 30 a.m. Sunday.

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