With professional sports on hold indefinitely during the coronavirus pandemic, audiences worldwide have been riveted by “The Last Dance,” the 10-episode documentary series on ESPN and Netflix about the Chicago Bulls basketball dynasty of the 1990s.
The central figure in this story is Michael Jordan, universally regarded as the greatest basketball player of all time. What stands out, in particular, is Jordan’s hyper-competitiveness and burning desire to “win at all costs.”
Whether it’s punching a teammate who stood up to him in the face or mercilessly ridiculing the general manager of his own team, Jordan’s bullying and intimidation is justified in the documentary because he was “the ultimate winner.” Those who disagree with this approach are “losers,” because this is the “price of winning.”
While Jordan himself never claimed to be a role model, his life and accomplishments are an inspiration to many in the world. As the slogan from Jordan’s famous Gatorade commercials in the 1990s stated, we should all “Be Like Mike.”
But at a time of a global crisis, when collaboration is more important than competition in terms of ending the coronavirus pandemic, is this the time for anyone to “Be Like Mike?”
A symbol of hyper-competitive American society
The pathological competitiveness of Jordan mirrors the dominant values of American society, particularly the cut-throat logic of neoliberalism. This dominant political-economic philosophy, with its focus on life as an endless competition, is associated with a range of ills, including increasing inequality and the breakdown of state institutions.
Jordan did not come out of a vacuum. He is the ultimate neoliberal subject, relentlessly defeating his enemies on the court, all the while promoting his brand and making us happy consumers of his sneakers and numerous other products.
We see the same logic that gave birth to and celebrates Jordan also at work in the higher levels of American government. The United States has a president who during the 2016 campaign bragged about how when he gets elected, Americans will “win” so much that they will be “bored of winning.”
During this pandemic, Donald Trump has continued to boast of having death totals that are “very, very strong,” using mortality rates as a tool for a perverse competition between nations.
Even with such high death totals and an out-of-control situation in the United States, Trump continues to both cast blame on China in an effort to help him win the 2020 presidential election and to praise the disastrous American response.
And lest we forget, he reminds us that “while we mourn the tragic loss of life … you can’t mourn it any stronger than we’re mourning it.”
This connection between Jordan and Trump may seem ill-fitting to some: one person clearly displays mastery of his craft; the other is perhaps a genius for gaining media attention, but has also been called highly delusional.
Regardless of these differences, there is a common thread of hyper-competitiveness and ruthlessness in wider American society that binds them.
Collaboration over competition
To beat the coronavirus pandemic, the traits that Jordan displays and wider American culture celebrates are woefully inadequate at best and harmful at worst. Global collaboration instead of hyper-competition between nations is desperately needed, whether in finding a vaccine, developing treatments and co-ordinating comprehensive worldwide containment strategies.
An “America First” approach to a pandemic does not make sense, and in fact can severely hurt the United States.
In a world with so much interconnectivity, global civilization is uniquely fragile to disruptions. The ongoing threats of climate change and other possible future pandemics only reinforce the need for more collaborative responses to the threats all of humanity faces.
A larger issue to consider is how the media creates ultra-competitive alpha male “heroes” straight out of a capitalist blueprint. ESPN and the wider sports media environment benefit greatly from this narrative of individual greatness —whatever the cost may be to others or society.
But the idea of heroism itself within the sports world (and also wider society) is in need of reform. Many wisdom traditions from around the world describe the “heroic journey,” a path that is available to all of us. This type of heroism is rooted in growth, becoming humble, developing wisdom and living a life larger than oneself.
We do not have to look far to see so many models of heroism and selflessness during this fight against COVID-19. But rather than placing so much of the burden of heroism on our front-line workers and health-care professionals, we need to fully own our own heroic journeys in these challenging times.
Maybe then empty “heroes” like Michael Jordan and the toxic culture that he is associated with may not be so appealing after all.