Monday, October 04, 2010

Who's Pulling the Strings?

To begin with, I fully confess to being a Michael Jordan fan. I lived in Chicago through the Jordan years, and I'm a hoops junky. He's the best I ever saw, and the fan in me will brook no comparison to Kobe or LeBron or Magic or Larry or Wilt or anyone else.
That is a fan speaking, and not a student of the game. If I put on that hat then the comparisons might shake out differently. But I won't put on that hat any more than I'll put on the t-shirt I have that Michael wore on a Hanes commercial on whose set, through a complicated set of circumstances, I was a gopher. That shirt is preserved in a sealed plastic bag, just like my memories of Jordan in their rose-colored case.
What brings MJ to mind? Well, the comparisons of Jordan to LeBron James over the past several months raise some fascinating non-basketball issues, and on the non-basketball front I'll happily leap in. Jordan and James are remarkably similar in their global marketing and in the way that they each steadfastly avoid making waves that might stand in the way of making sales.
When asked to support the U.S. Senate candidacy of Harvey B. Gantt in 1990, Jordan famously demurred, saying, "Republicans buy shoes, too." Similarly, when James' Cleveland teammates signed a statement condemning the government of China for its role in the genocide in Darfur, James refused to sign. Speculation on the refusal circled around the role of Chine in the manufacture of athletic shoes, particularly those sold under the Nike label, for whom James -- like Jordan before him -- famously shills.
Despite a few such bumps in his road, James has mostly avoided controversy. Until, that is, the summer, and now the fall, of James' discontent or disconnect. His much derided move from Cleveland to Miami, handled with, well, less than grace and style, left James in a place that Jordan never visited: the bottom of the Q ratings and a station among the least popular half dozen athletes in America.
James resides there alongside Michael Vick (of dog-fighting infamy), Kobe Bryant (sexual assault allegations), and Tiger Woods (more sex problems). Add in a pair of brash football players -- Chad Ochocinco and Terrel Owens -- and you round out the list of the half dozen least popular athletes in America.
Notice anything about that list?
Perhaps you're not a sports fan, so these men's faces do not spring immediately to your mind, but if you saw their faces you'd notice that they're all black.
James had the temerity to suggest that race played a factor in the overwhelmingly emotional and negative reaction to his decision to leave Cleveland, and now he's being attacked from almost all sides again for "playing the race card."
Sportswriter Dave Zirin notes on The Nation blog today that superstar quarterbacks Brett Farve, Ben Roethlisberger, and Tom Brady who are white, have not suffered nearly as much negative backlash despite having a well-documented drug addiction (in Farve's case), sexual assault charges (in Roethlisberger's), and an out-of-wedlock child (Brady).
You don't find their names on the bottom of the Q list, and it's naive or disingenuous to suggest that racial attitudes have nothing to do with the different reactions. We simply hold black and white athletes to different standards, and react differently to their problems. Farve, for example, remains one of the most popular athletes in America, ranking just few Q points down the list from Peyton Manning among active professional football players. His story is often told as one of change and redemption. Perhaps that story will emerge as the dominant narrative about Michael Vick, but that remains an as yet unwritten story at this point.
On the other hand, Jordan remains at the top of the list of most-liked athletes, and you rarely find him on the "negative Q score" list despite his own gambling problems and failed marriage.
Which brings me back to the t-shirt, or, at least, to the commercial. You probably never saw it because it was the worst thing imaginable. The idea was to make Jordan fly. (I pulled the ropes on the rigging apparatus, and can therefore say honestly that I made Michael Jordan fly.) It was a horrible concept to begin with because Jordan was one of the most graceful athletes in the world and never needed the likes of me or a set of ropes and pulleys to achieve beautiful flight all on his own.
The commercial shoot dragged on an hour longer than scheduled, and Jordan was impatient to leave. As a superstar he had conveniently forgotten that he had arrived 90 minutes late to begin with, but, never mind that, he wanted to leave when he wanted to leave.
The problem was, he was attached to ropes and dangling in the air like a puppet, unable to get away.
If James wants to get back in the good graces of the public, perhaps he should reattach himself to the ropes that kept Jordan suspended above the fray.
Oh, there's a price to be paid, for sure, but we seem to like our black athletes best when we can pull the strings.

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