The Jeffersonian: Politicks, Sports, and Culture

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Heresy

The New Republic's new blog, The Plank, has something that borders on heresy for people of my generation. A scathing post on Michael Jordan:

There's been a flurry of recent publicity about Michael Jordan, who has published a new book (quote-unquote), and who was featured in a widely-hyped "60 Minutes" segment this past Sunday. And it occurs to me that there's a subtantial parallel between Michael Jordan and George W. Bush. Both men studiously cultivated a charming, nice-guy public persona that brought them incalculable benefits (financial and political, respectively). But beneath the surface, both of them are utterly ruthless operators. The seminal Bush example is his gruesome disembowlment of John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary. For Jordan, there was the seedy pushoff on Utah's Bryon Russell that allowed him to sink an open, series-winning shot in the 1998 NBA Finals.

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There was also MJ's often-sneering attitude towards rivals and teammates alike; his mastery of the hidden cheap foul; his creepily pathological need to win at everything from golf to poker to ping-pong.

I can't tell you how surprised I am. I think this is how active Catholics must feel when one rips into the Pope, or how right-wingers feel about Democrats bad mouthing Reagan.

Seeing as how I grew up worshipping at the altar of MJ (Jordan won his first title when I was 9 going on 10, his last title when I was 16 going on 17, and was 22 when he retired for good), I can tell you comparing him to George Bush is akin to comparing Jesus of Nazareth to Jim Jones.

Comparing Jordan's push off from Bryon Russell to Bush's 2000 South Carolina primary victory? Please. If you wanted to make an example of Jordan being utterly ruthless, you could've done much better than that. How about Jordan asking a crying Jud Buechler at the end of the '96 NBA Finals why he was crying, since he- Jordan- was the one who won the title. Or the number of times he absolutely killed a player's level of confidence by demolishing him in practice (see Brown, Kwame). Jordan clearly believed in a 'spare rod, spoil the NBAer' mentality. And it gave him six rings for his efforts.

And why shouldn't he have had a sneering attitude toward his rivals? He never really found one that matched up. Maybe Hakeem would've if MJ had been playing basketball instead of baseball in the mid '90s. But by the time Jordan reached his prime, Bird was no longer around and Magic was on the decline. So excuse MJ if all he had to match himself up with was Clyde Drexler, Gary Payton, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone. West, Chamberlain or Russell would've sneered at that opposition too. Plus, Jordan did only what every other superstar player in the league does when it comes to fouling. He gets away with more because Dick Bavetta, et al allow them too.

As far as the creepily pathological need to win... Crowley needs to get out more. I think me and my circle of friends could fit underneath that description (although still beneath Jordan's need to win). We're ruthless when it comes to anything. Visit us during any pick-up game, video game free for all, or all-night poker/Risk binge (yes, it's sad, really). If someone doesn't leave pissed or with a bloody nose (sport games only), then- odds are- we didn't get around to playing.

Luckily though, there is a defense of Jordan in a later post:

I will take issue with the notion, however, that Jordan is somehow diminished because he was never socially or politically active. Would it be nice if he had been? Sure. But it's hardly fair to hold it against him. Indeed, it seems like the only athletes who are expected to speak out on social or political issues are, like Jordan, black ones. Until people start complaining about how Larry Bird or Peyton Manning or Roger Clemens has never lent his good name to a political cause, then I think Jordan should get a pass.

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The best explanation I've seen for Jordan's reluctance to get involved in politics comes from David Halberstam, who, in his book about Jordan Playing for Keeps, writes:

To the degree that he was capable of making a statement about the black condition, it was not so much with his words but with his deeds, the way he played in big games under unrelenting pressures, the way he comported himself on and off court in front of the most intrusive media scrutiny in modern history, and finally how shrewd a businessman he had become. It was, in his case, as if some things did not need to be spoken because they had been done.

Completely agree with that argument. While this doesn't apply to Zengerle or Crowley, it's always seemed that the biggest cries of Jordan being apolitical have come from the Baby Boomer generation of reporters/journalists. Those that grew up watching and admiring Muhammed Ali and wished for their own once-in-a-generation athlete to remind them of their youth and why they joined the ranks of sports journalism to begin with. Transferring their hopes and dreams to Jordan set him up for nothing but failure.

But we also live in decidely different times than the 1960s when Ali, Tommy Smith, Juan Carlos, and Jim Brown publicly declared their political stances. Jordan played from the mid '80s through the late '90s, tell me what happened in that time frame that compares to what happened in the turbulent '60s? Tell me what issue matches up to the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam war? The four named above were part of a movement, they didn't necessarily get intricately involved in one US Senate race, which is what Crowley is nailing Jordan for. They added fuel to a movement, but in no way did they start one. Tell me what movement Jordan could've added something to in this timespan? The evangelical movement? David Robinson already has that one covered.

Times have changed. I, and people of my generation, haven't ever looked to professional athletes for moral or political guidance.

And as Zengerle correctly points out, I don't know how much more support Jordan would've added to Gantt during those Gantt-Helms battles of the '90s if Dean Smith was already supporting Harvey Gantt.