Michael Jordan pauses during his induction to the North Carolina Sport Hall of Fame. (Reuters/Chris Keane)
“The thing is that, when you are a popular athlete, and you accept he money and the fame, and you become a front person for those who have the power, and they say ‘be like this guy,’ and kids that are coming up say, ‘well, be like him, I won’t protest against anything, I’ll accept everything, I’ll just try to be a great athlete and make a lot of money.’ So a culture dies when you do that. You’re doing a great injustice to young kids that are coming up, and I never wanted to be a representation of less than a man and have young kids coming up emulating me.”
When Michael Jeffrey Jordan turned 50 years old on Sunday, a series of articles were published about the basketball legend whose athletic greatness was surpassed only by his commercial prowess. From a distance, Jordan’s existence must resemble fantasy: the athlete who accumulated enough wealth to make the ultimate transition from NBA player to NBA owner.
Yet there is little to admire about Michael Jordan at 50. If anything, the more you learn, the more you recoil. We all know the story of the pro athlete who ends up bankrupt. But what happens to the athlete who gains the world yet still stews in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction? This is Jordan. He’s no longer the smiling, gravity-defying movie star from Space Jam. Instead, he’s more like the glowering recluse from Citizen Kane. Jordan’s days are spent managing a Charlotte Bobcats team going nowhere and, just as in his playing days, mining the media for criticism, nursing every slight like precious oxygen, vital for keeping his competitive embers from going cold.
When not surveying sports articles for new enemies, he finds himself mired in nostalgia for the person he was, opening old boxes and shouting at the help in cavernous hallways in search of misplaced championship rings. Jordan still earns $80 million a year in endorsements, and it’s hard not to imagine it piled up in stacks, balancing precariously on a mountain of unopened Nike boxes inside his own personal Xanadu. The same Jordan who everyone wanted to get near, the same Jordan who used his 2009 Hall of Fame induction speech to roast everyone in the room—minus the humor—finds himself more and more alone, leading to this brutal Onion headline. (One can only assume that The Onion is now on the enemies list.)
As an NBA player in the age before the Internet, the worst aspects of Jordan’s personality were always hidden from public view. We didn’t know it, but Jordan represented some of the darkest impulses in sports. Everything that drives young people from play can be found in Michael Jordan’s approach to his teammates. He was the hectoring bully who would “moo” when heavyset general manager Jerry Krause would enter the room. He was the locker room homophobe, who would repeatedly call teenage rookie Kwame Brown a “flaming f—got” as a tool of “motivation.” He punched teammate Steve Kerr, for goodness sake, which must be the hoops equivalent of kicking a puppy. These character deficits, when mentioned at all, were often lauded because of the championships they produced, the end justifying the means. They don’t wear well on a failing 50-year-old team executive.
This same competitive fire is also what served him so well in the corridors of corporate America. The billion-dollar “Jordan Brand” became the savior of corporations like Nike, Hanes, Gatorade and McDonalds, to name just a few. He was the first athlete whose public persona was entirely constructed by commercials, and his influential gospel was that the ultimate aspiration of any athlete should be to become a brand. This marked a Reagan-era break in the tradition of athletes—particularly African-American athletes—to use their platform, influence and power for the greater good.
There are many who argue that this highly racialized political critique of Jordan is unfair. They’ll argue that just by being a successful African-American businessman, he is being a powerful role model. They argue that people like New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden, who said that Jordan had “abdicated his responsibility [to the African-American community] with an apathy that borders on treason,” are asking too much. He is a “post–civil rights” athlete and should be allowed to be “just an athlete.” Let’s leave aside that a country where racism persists in jobs, hiring, voting rights and the system of mass-incarceration is not “post-anything.” Certainly, if Michael Jordan doesn’t want to speak about and support community uplift, that’s his business. But at some point, it has to be recognized that these choices to do nothing are, in fact, political choices all the same. We also need to recognize that this wasn’t just a political choice. Bluntly, Michael Jordan profited massively from his silence. By being the Seinfeld-era superstar—standing for “nothing”—Jordan was able to shill for everything, no matter the company, no matter how controversial their labor practices.
Given the heights he commanded, it’s difficult to think of anyone in the history of American cultural life who did less with more. Jordan at the height of his powers could have made a real difference in the practices of the corporations that begged for his presence. This is especially the case with Nike, devotee of the workplace known as the “sweatshop.” When once confronted by anti-Nike sweatshop activists, he said he’d “look at the problem.” That never happened. Instead he signed a statement defending Nike and criticizing Jesse Jackson’s Operation Push for investigating Nike’s labor practices.
At some point, Michael Jordan must have pondered his incalculable cultural capital and surely asked himself if there was some cause, some mission, some idea greater than himself that demanded his attention. Even his old rival Karl Malone sits on the board of the National Rifle Association. To paraphrase The Big Lebowski, say what you want about Malone, at least he has an ethos. Jordan instead has competitive tapeworm, always thirsting to beat others for no reason other than that the alternative would be unbearable. “It’s consumed me so much,” he says. “I’m my own worst enemy. I drove myself so much that I’m still living with some of those drives. I’m living with that. I don’t know how to get rid of it. I don’t know if I could.” It’s almost as if having become a “brand,” he yearns to be human again but has no roadmap to make his return to the land of the living. He has no “rosebud” other than the game he still yearns to play, the very game that swallowed him whole.