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The Case Against Michael Jordan

By Michael Crowley

JANUARY 25, 1999:  In an America so saturated with cynicism, so devoid of idealism, so lacking in real heroes, the mythology and propaganda surrounding the retirement of Michael Jordan from basketball last week was an awesome thing to behold.

Jordan's exit was more than a sports story. It was a news moment infused with broader cultural meaning. CNN carried his press conference live. His shining bald crown graced the front page of the New York Times and virtually every other major American newspaper. Perhaps only the Starr Report has led to as many special-insert newspaper sections. When a White House event overlapped with Jordan's press conference, even Bill Clinton noted that "most of the cameras are somewhere else."

Michael Jordan has, of course, become much more than just a basketball player. He is an icon, the representation of a national ideal. He may be the only true American hero -- indeed, as perhaps the most famous man alive, he may be the only true global hero. (In a recent survey of Chinese students, for example, Jordan tied with Zhou Enlai as "the world's greatest man.") We presume him to be an object of worship and emulation. The old Gatorade slogan "Be Like Mike" may be out of circulation, but the message remains. Given this degree of benign celebrity -- fueled not only by Jordan's mind-bending skill and six NBA championships but also by the global ubiquity that comes from endorsing the monolithic likes of Coke, McDonald's, and Nike (not to mention from Space Jam, his $450 million-grossing movie) -- it was no stretch for the New York Times to venture that Jordan is "arguably the most significant athlete of this century."

So what, exactly, does Jordan's sound and fury truly signify? And is it as wonderful as everyone has concluded? To me, the answers are: not much, and no. That's why, if I am not quite glad to see him go, I'm not particularly sad, either. Jordan's supernatural basketball talents are, of course, unassailable -- even if the debate over whether he is The Best Ever has been settled prematurely. He has given me a thousand moments of aesthetic awe. He made my favorite sport exponentially more popular. He has earned his success through honest hard work. And yet I have always had my reservations about Michael Jordan -- Jordan the Chicago Bull, Jordan the man, Jordan the multinational corporation.

None of these Jordans has ever stood for much worth celebrating beyond pure personal achievement. On the court, Jordan was hardly a paragon of sportsmanship. He could be dirty, petulant, and selfish. Yet the league cast him in a cartoonish superhero role that tarnished the integrity of the game. As a person, despite his cosmic stardom, Jordan is a dull Everyman. There has always been a coldness to his manner and a blandness to his words. His pathological competitive drive was at times unnerving. And despite his mighty influence, Jordan remained egocentric, uninterested in changing the world that lay at his feet. Either he felt no higher obligations, or he simply didn't want to risk his lucrative endorsement contracts. This, finally, is the most important, and most regrettable, meaning of Michael Jordan. He represents the worst of America today: rampant individualism, profit without conscience, and a numbing culture of sanitized corporate homogeneity.

When considering Michael Jordan, it's impossible not to reflect on the only other athlete to have achieved this degree of stardom and influence: Muhammad Ali. To compare the two is to realize how plain Jordan's persona is, and how different the 1990s are from the 1960s.

In his 1960s prime, Ali was more than a physical specimen, a success story, a winner. He was a personality. His legacy endures because the world was as compelled by his spirit as by his fists. Ali was an imaginative, freewheeling comedian -- a rapper before there was rap. He was eminently unpredictable, wonderfully chaotic, utterly unrestrained. The contrast is even more striking when one remembers that Ali was as much a political phenomenon as an athletic one. He was a converted Muslim -- hence the change from his given name, Cassius Clay -- who spoke out against racism in America. When drafted, he refused to go to Vietnam with an explanation of famously pithy simplicity: "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong."

Obviously, many of the values Ali represented were products of the unhinged decade in which he rose to fame: his expressive personality, his racial and religious consciousness, his politics. "The Beatles' blend of R&B and Liverpool pop, and Clay's blend of defiance and humor," writes David Remnick in his 1998 Ali biography, King of the World (Random House), "was changing the sound of the times, its temper; set alongside the march on Washington and the quagmire in Vietnam, they would, in their way, become essential pieces of the sixties phantasmagoria."

If Ali's persona dramatically overshadows Jordan's, perhaps that's what we should expect. Maybe Michael Jordan reflects our times no less than Ali reflected his own. Just as Ali was a vessel for the social chaos and spiritual liberation of his day, so Jordan symbolizes the political apathy and cultural shallowness of ours. Ali was a 1960s archetype in that he was a passionate and incendiary rebel. Michael Jordan is a 1990s archetype in that he is a value-neutral brand name.

In thinking about what kind of basketball player Michael Jordan was, it's useful to begin at the end. Slow-motion replays of the last shot of Jordan's career, the buzzer-beating, championship-winning swish against the Utah Jazz in the NBA finals last spring, were unavoidable on television last week. To the Jordan-worshipping world, that shot represents all that is good and great about the man: here is the noble competitor in the clutch, rising to victory as his faked-out defender slips haplessly to the floor. Writing in the New Yorker this week, Remnick called it "a move so exquisite that even his defender stumbled in mystification."

But a closer look reveals that something a bit less majestic had taken place: Jordan got away with a foul. Driving to the basket to set up his jump shot, Jordan gave a subtle shove to the Utah defender, Byron Russell, with his free hand. It was Jordan's push-off, not a lightning-fast move, that caused Russell to slip and left Jordan with an open shot.

That push-off became a signature of Jordan's later years, when his speed and leap had waned a bit, when he needed a little extra help to get a clear look. It is a patently illegal tactic. But Jordan, whose star power was so valuable to the NBA, clearly received special treatment from the referees. They turned a blind eye to his cunningly discreet infractions even as they whistled his opponents for any hint of a foul.

Just as there are dual interpretations of Jordan's last shot, there are dual interpretations of his NBA career. To some, he was the consummate competitor and sportsman. To me, he symbolized a corrupting star system in the NBA that blurs the line between sports and entertainment, gives special treatment to a few superstars, and replaces the thrill of uncertainty with a predictable script.

Though he plays aggressively, in his 13 years in the league Jordan fouled out of just 10 games -- and none since 1992. "The way the game is officiated is basically a caste system," Jordan's longtime teammate Steve Kerr told New Jersey's Bergen Record in 1995. "If this were India, guys like Michael and Alonzo [Mourning] would be members of the Gandhi family and guys like me would be peasants. That's the way the NBA works. Michael and Alonzo get calls. Me and [journeyman center] Joe Wolf don't."

The result was that Jordan's natural advantages were artificially supplemented. I don't doubt that, without the help of referees, Jordan would still have dominated basketball. But his star treatment always seemed to taint the game's legitimacy, not to mention the way it lent a certain tedious inevitability to his title drives.

Jordan may be gone, but his legacy will endure in some unfortunate ways. Maybe neither he nor the league intended it, but the Jordanization of the NBA -- which, to be fair, began years ago with stars like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson -- has inflated the value of the individual at the expense of the time-honored team ideal.

"In tennis or golf or boxing, the mystique is the individual," Jordan's agent, Michael Falk, told the New Yorker last summer, "whereas, no matter how great Bill Russell or Bob Cousy was, it was the Celtics dynasty -- it was always institutional. Michael changed all that." It may have been wonderful for a time. But now Jordan is gone, and the NBA is filled with undisciplined young showoffs -- the Allan Iversons, the Kevin Garnetts, the Antoine Walkers -- trying in vain to succeed him. "I think the league saw my example," Jordan writes in his recent coffee-table autobiography, For the Love of the Game (Crown), "and thought it could slide other players into the slot I created." It's hard to believe the game won't be impoverished as a result.

One of the most radical Jordan critics I know argues that the cult of MJ has done nothing less than place pro basketball "somewhere between college basketball and pro wrestling. They have good-guy teams and bad-guy teams, good-guy players and bad-guy players. Even on other teams' courts, Jordan's the good guy. People cheer him."

Not me. I never understood how New York fans (like myself, I must disclose) could applaud the man who stifled so many Knicks title drives. I remember one 1996 game between the Knicks and Jordan's Chicago Bulls at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. It was a vital game for New York, but the Garden swarmed with fans who'd paid to see Michael. One of them was sitting in my row -- a young boy, perhaps 11, wearing a replica Jordan jersey. As Chicago took an early lead, the boy gleefully cheered Jordan's every basket and obnoxiously taunted his Knick defenders. But the tide quickly turned, and New York rampaged to a blowout win. By the time Jordan skulked to the bench, after a mediocre performance, tears were streaming down the disconsolate boy's cheeks. They were the tears of a child at a loss to understand something that's not supposed to happen. It had probably never occurred to him that the good-guy wrestler can get stomped and hurled out of the ring.

Jordan's exit from basketball last week didn't prompt balanced journalism so much as hagiography. The Boston Globe compared him to William Shakespeare. And the author David Halberstam, after following the Bulls for several months, has concluded that Jordan "is the most charismatic player ever in his sport."

But Halberstam, like so many other worshipful writers, has lost perspective. Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson, Jason Williams -- heck, even Dennis Rodman -- all were more colorful, more engaging, and more imaginative than Jordan. Indeed, all the lyrical praise has only underscored what a bore Jordan is. For someone who had reached a pinnacle in his life experience, he always seemed a little vacant. Jordan never showed any real sense of humor or imagination. He spoke in clichés and hollow jock jargon. He didn't even have especially deep insights about the game itself. At his brief farewell press conference last week, Jordan was typically banal, using some variation of the word challenge 20 times.

Jordan is worse than just boring, though. While his public-relations machine has built up an all-American image of a kind and easygoing guy who loves golf and his kids and pursued the American dream, that façade is a partial truth at best. A more accurate description would consider that Jordan has a titanic ego, that he is capable of real meanness, that he is almost pathologically obsessed with competition and winning. His fanatical will to succeed is not so much charming as disturbing.

Needless to say, Michael Jordan could have been a worse role model. He never got in fights, didn't invent any stupid victory jigs, never tried to strangle his coach. He has a stable family life (even if his love story has been idealized: in fact, Jordan married at a cheapo Las Vegas chapel 10 months after his first child was born, and after his wife-to-be was preparing to slap him with a paternity suit).

But he certainly hasn't always been the cartoon superhero marketed to us by his corporate patrons and the NBA. Jordan's dark side was most famously memorialized in Sam Smith's 1992 book The Jordan Rules: The Inside Story of a Turbulent Season with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls (Pocket Books), which depicted him as selfish, arrogant, obsessed with statistics, and disparaging to his teammates. That image was reinforced as recently as last spring, when, late in game one of the 1998 NBA Finals, Jordan shouted at Bulls forward Scottie Pippen for not passing him the ball -- after Pippen had made a game-tying three-pointer.

Despite his humble Everyman image, Jordan can't suppress his ego. He refers to himself in the third person. He is known for talking arrogant trash on the court. He once called his teammates "my supporting cast." He even skipped an honorary team appearance at the White House in 1991 without giving an explanation. (He is vain, too: even his famous shaved-head look was a convenient response to premature baldness.)

And despite his gracious veneer, His Airness is also famously thin-skinned. Any slight or criticism is cause for massive retaliation, as Sports Illustrated learned after it published an article in 1993 calling on him to abandon his ill-fated stint as a baseball player. For years, Jordan refused to talk to the magazine; SI editors are apparently convinced that a still-resentful Jordan intentionally leaked word of his retirement last week just after the magazine had gone to press.

"If you challenge him," Toronto Raptors coach and former player Darrell Walker told the Toronto Star last year, "he can be a very vindictive person." There's even some evidence that Jordan has cowed the media into submission. When a California woman filed a paternity suit against him last summer, for instance, only two print-media outlets -- Time magazine and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel -- ran the story.

On the court, too, sometimes Jordan's competitive drive seemed alarmingly excessive. As his former coach Doug Collins once said, "He wants to cut your heart out and then show it to you." His teammate Luc Longley described Jordan to Halberstam with one word: predator. That insatiable need to win explains the one real blotch on Jordan's squeaky-clean reputation: a taste for high-stakes gambling. In 1992, Jordan admitted to paying $165,000 in poker and golf debts to a pair of unsavory characters, one of whom was later murdered. The following year, Jordan was seen lingering late at an Atlantic City casino the night before a major playoff game. And a former golfing partner wrote a book claiming that Michael had lost $1.25 million on the links in 10 days. (A penitent Jordan admitted betting with the man but said the figures had been exaggerated.) Rumors still linger that Jordan's debts were a factor in his startling first "retirement" in 1993 -- some suggest that the league insisted he lay low for a while.

"My son doesn't have a gambling problem," Jordan's father said before his death. "He has a competition problem."

In 1990, America watched a neck-and-neck North Carolina Senate race that was as close to a morality play as an election gets. Republican incumbent Jesse Helms, a spiteful right-winger and a barely reconstructed segregationist, was running a racially tinged campaign against the up-and-coming black mayor of Charlotte, Democrat Harvey Gantt. It was clear for weeks leading up to the election that the race would turn on a narrow margin, and it occurred to Gantt's backers that a certain beloved native of the state could make a huge impact on the race with a single quote or a brief photo op. So they approached Michael Jordan. Declining to get involved, Jordan offered this explanation: "Republicans buy sneakers too."

That statement is quintessential Jordan. You might even call it the Jordan ideology. Unlike many of the sports monoliths who preceded him -- some of whom criticize him today -- Jordan has remained devoutly apolitical. He has never used his platform to pursue social or political change; indeed, he's gone out of his way to play it safe. This is, of course, precisely how the corporations he endorses want it. Politics and marketing don't mix: a loose cannon like Muhammad Ali could forget about big endorsement contracts. This is the '90s, a time when politics takes a back seat to profit and ideas are less important than products. Yet it would be too easy to excuse Jordan as a product of his culture. He is no mere athlete; he is one of world's most influential men. With his net worth of $500 million and his near-universal popularity, he could start redefining his times tomorrow.

There are signs that Jordan does indeed have a social conscience. Less well-known than his refusal to back Gantt is the fact that Jordan contributed $2000 (the maximum allowed by law) to Gantt's rematch campaign against Helms in 1996. There is no sign, however, that Jordan cares to enter the political arena. Asked last week whether he would become more active, Jordan answered: "I can't save the world by no means."

Yes, he has done his share of good works. Jordan has donated millions to charity and to his alma mater, the University of North Carolina. Every year he visits with dozens of dying children whose last wish it is to meet him.

But if Jordan has cut a few fat checks over the years -- and remember that some giving is required of any celebrity wanting to avoid looking villainous -- he has certainly made no wider effort to take advantage of his unique cultural pedestal. When asked in 1992 about the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, for instance, Jordan lamely replied: "I need to know more about it."

News punditry may be a lot to ask of pro athletes. Yet Jordan has also dodged matters over which he has a more direct influence. For instance, Jordan has never complained about the $150 price tag on his Nike Air Jordan sneakers, which are targeted at the inner-city kids who can least afford them. By contrast, in 1996 NBA forward Chris Webber publicly feuded with the company over the cost of shoes sold in his name.

Most famous, however, is Jordan's great shoulder-shrug over Nike's allegedly exploitative labor practices in Southeast Asia. When the company first became the target of activist ire, Jordan said it wasn't his problem. Then, in 1997, he changed his tune. "I'm hearing a lot of different sides to the issue," Jordan told the Sporting News. "The best thing I can do is go to Asia (in July) and see it for myself. If there are issues . . . if it's an issue of slavery or sweatshops, [Nike executives] have to revise the situation." Yet even after acknowledging the specter of "slavery," Jordan never made the trip.

Jordan's careful efforts to avoid social issues haven't escaped criticism. Several well-known pro athletes -- including such black stars as Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown, and Hank Aaron -- have knocked Jordan for being politically aloof. "He's more interested in his image for his shoe deals than he is in helping his own people," Brown said of Jordan in 1992.

In this sense, Jordan is guilty of something rarely associated with his name: failed potential. With the eyes of the entire world on him, Jordan has been content to stand for nothing but himself. It was not always this way with professional athletes. Think of Ali. Think of how Jackie Robinson used sports as a vehicle for racial progress, not simply by taking the field with white players but by speaking out both during and after his baseball career. Arthur Ashe was an intellectual as well as a tennis champion. Celtics great Bill Russell was an introspective and outspoken man. Nor is activism limited to black sports stars: in 1972, Washington Redskins lineman Ray Schoenke organized 400 athletes in support of Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. The NBA's Bill Bradley and football's Steve Largent headed off to national politics after they retired.

In fairness, Jordan is not an exception among his contemporaries. His equivalents in other sports -- Tiger Woods, Ken Griffey, Mark McGwire -- aren't known for their politics. But it's not unheard-of for modern-day athletes to take political stands.

When Jordan was skipping that 1991 White House visit, for instance, his outspoken teammate Craig Hodges showed up in a dashiki with a letter for George Bush on the plight of the inner cities. "I can't go and just be in an Armani suit and not say shit," Hodges later told the Village Voice. In 1993, NBA forward Olden Polynice staged a hunger strike to protest US policy toward his native Haiti. A second-rate player, Polynice nevertheless drew national coverage. Imagine what a Michael Jordan could do with one press conference.

"If [sports stars] can sell these wares with the power of their personas," Jesse Jackson told the Washington Post in 1996, "they also can sell civic responsibility with the power of their personas."

Jordan is both aware of and defensive about such criticism. "When something like the LA riot happens," he said in a 1992 interview with Black Entertainment Television, "I'm asked to comment on it. People tend to expect me to do more, be more opinionated, more vocal. They make it sound like Magic Johnson and myself are the only wealthy black people in America. Where are the Eddie Murphys, the Arsenio Halls, Bill Cosby?" He may feel, with some justification, that his status as a black American icon is a social statement in itself. Or it may be more elementary than that. "My responsibility," Jordan said last week, "has been to play the game of basketball and relieve some of the pressure of everyday life for people who work nine to five." Hardly a despicable credo.

Yet if Jordan is in a position to give back so much more to the world that gave him fame, why not do it? He could insist, as Jim Brown has, on more blacks in sports management. He could press, as Jesse Jackson has, for more corporate hiring and investment in black communities. He could go after handguns with the considerable moral force of a man whose father was shot by teenagers.

In an era of boundless cynicism, apathy, and the primacy of economics over politics, perhaps it's not particularly surprising to see the consummate cultural icon stand for nothing but profit. Perhaps in worshipping Michael Jordan, we are celebrating nothing less than capitalism. After all, a recorded message at Jordan's personal office informs callers that "the majority of Michael Jordan fan mail and autograph requests will be acknowledged by Nike, Inc." And in this day and age, few people expect capitalism to have a conscience. But Michael Jordan is a young man. He may still have some idealism left in him. Maybe he can't save the world by no means. But he can make a difference. And he should Just Do It.

Michael Crowley can be reached at mcrowley@phx.com.

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