“Basketball fans endlessly discuss whether Michael Jordan or LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all time. The jury may still be out on that one, but in my book, off-court James is definitely the lesser man.”
atthew Miranda argues in his recent Jacobin essay that ESPN’s The Last Dance is a ten-episode “mythmaking” commercial for Michael Jordan. Miranda is correct. The series presents a sugarcoated version of Jordan, which is not surprising given that Jordan himself supervised the editing. His Airness is portrayed as an occasional narcissist and bully, but, hey, (so the argument goes), these traits are needed for greatness. His gambling problem is addressed, but it is never presented as pathological. His family life, which includes extramarital affairs and a divorce, is almost completely left out. And, needless to say, the series pays no attention whatsoever to the appalling conditions of laborers in Asian sweatshops, who make the shoes that Nike fetishizes.
But, even in this sugarcoated biography of Jordan, one particular incident could not be left out. In 1990, Democrat Harvey Gantt, the African American former Mayor of Charlotte, was running against Republican Jesse Helms, who had filibustered both the Voting Rights Act and the Senate’s proposal to establish Martin Luther King Day, in the North Carolina Senate race. Jordan was asked to endorse Gantt, and he refused to do so, saying that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” In The Last Dance, Jordan tries to defend himself arguing that he was an athlete—not an activist. His focus, as such, was to excel in the game of basketball—not in social justice.
As I see it, Jordan makes a strong case when defending himself. Why should he be so worried about racial politics? Needless to say, racism is bad, but why is the onus on Jordan to go out of his way to militate against it? In the social justice warrior narrative, if one’s skin is dark, then he is obliged to be an activist. In this strange worldview, whites can be apolitical, but blacks are not given that privilege. This is, in fact, a form of essentialism: Michael Jordan is not allowed to have his own individuality. Inasmuch as he belongs to a particular race, he ought to do what members of that race are expected to do. Progressives fail to notice that this essentialism is the type of thinking that fueled racism in the first place. By suggesting that Jordan’s lack of political activism makes him inauthentically black, progressives end up endorsing the idea that blackness is an essence that dictates how people must behave. For centuries, racists have done exactly that by arguing that, given their nature, blacks ought to be servants.
But, at least, Jordan was an honest, ruthless capitalist, who operated without the pretense of social activism. He was not in the business of hypocrisy. He only bowed to the Almighty Dollar, and that’s that.
Now, Jordan is not completely off the hook. After all, he built a corporate empire on the basis of overseas exploitation of cheap labor. It is one thing not to care about a senator one has never met; it is quite another to be completely silent about the terrible labor conditions on which one makes enormous profits. So, shame on Michael Jordan. But, at least, Jordan was an honest, ruthless capitalist, who operated without the pretense of social activism. He was not in the business of hypocrisy. He only bowed to the Almighty Dollar, and that’s that.
That is different from the generation that came after him. In the post-Jordan era, athletes still worship Mammon, yet they want to sell more shoes with holier-than-thou marketing. Take Colin Kaepernick, for example. As he realized that his football career was not going anywhere near greatness, he decided to reinvent himself as a social activist. He kneeled during the playing of the national anthem at games, in protest of racial injustices. All eyes were now set upon him. Suddenly, Nike took notice, and voila!, the man developed his own line of shoes, all in the name of anti-racism.
Did Kaepernick have a just cause? Of course he did. White cops do kill innocent black men (though not as often as media would like to think, as consistently demonstrated by Wilfred Reilly). And, in any country that prizes freedom, people ought to be allowed to kneel whenever any song is played, even if it is the national anthem. But, that is not the point. The point is that—all too frequently—legitimate social justice issues become marketing ploys. This point has been brilliantly made by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in their 2004 book, The Rebel Sell. The argument of that book is simple yet powerful: In advanced capitalism, counterculture has become consumer culture. One may kneel in protest during a football game, thinking he is rebelling against the system; but in fact, by doing so, he is only ingratiating himself to the capitalist system, as activism itself becomes hip. Rebellion becomes a commodity to be sold in the market.
Yet, only some forms of activism are hip. As such, one does not expect hip hop artists to be singing about sweatshops anytime soon. Nobody cares about Vietnamese or Indonesian girls working in semi-slavery conditions. If anything, they are the epitome of uncoolness. Kaepernick knows this very well. He may kneel to protest police shootings, but he will not utter a single word of protest against Nike’s overseas questionable business practices. Business is business, and one simply does not bite the hand that feeds him.
Basketball fans endlessly discuss whether Michael Jordan or LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all time. The jury may still be out on that one, but in my book, off-court James is definitely the lesser man. Very much as Kaepernick, James feels compelled to embrace a holier-than-thou attitude—because that is good for business. So, in order to build his brand (shoes included), he follows the same playbook: He needs to become a social activist. He, therefore, chooses the hip social justice causes that will take an American rapper to the top of the charts: police shootings and all the rest. Ultimately, he becomes aligned with the rest of mainstream show business, who are all making big bucks off of these causes.
By now, we all know that James’ social activism is very selective. When push came to shove, he infamously refrained from criticizing China’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s protesters. China makes for a massive market for the NBA, so, in James’ calculation, this would be a dangerous thing to do. Business is business.
Jordan holds the higher moral ground, to the extent that he bypassed these hypocrisies. Yes, he was a ruthless capitalist, but he did not usurp legitimate social activists by falsely pretending to be one. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of James. The Last Dance may be just another commercial promoting the Jordan brand, but there is a strange honesty throughout the series, in that Jordan was a fierce competitor, and nothing else. I would take this honesty over James’ annoying self-righteousness any day.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. His twitter is @gandrade80