'The Last Dance' offers justifications of Michael Jordan's bullying and complicity in injustice

The Last Dance 
Directed by Jason Hahir
ESPN films, 2020
Now showing on Netflix

During 1990s, the Chicago Bulls dominated basketball in the Unied States, winning 6 National Basketball Association (NBA) championships with Michael Jordan at the centre of the team. Directed by Jason Hahir, the ESPN documentary The Last Dance gives us a nostalgic look at the rise of that dynasty. 

The story centres on Jordan, who became a superstar whose fame transcended the world of basketball to become a global icon. The Last Dance traces the rise of Jordan, as he moves from college athlete to being the Bulls first pick in the 1984 NBA draft. 

Other key members of the Bulls organisation such as Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Tony Kukoc and coach Phil Jackson are also interviewed, providing a glimpse into the key moments of the Bulls dynasty. It also features footage of Jordan’s exploits with the 1992 US "Dream Team" at the Barcelona Olympics. 

The Last Dance has some major flaws. For a documentary that claims to be a “warts and all" story, there is a serious conflict of interest in the fact that ESPN failed to disclose the involvement of Jordan’s production company Jump 23. This means Jordan effectively had a veto over the final cut. 

A notable critic, renowned documentary film-maker Ken Burns said: “If you are there, influencing the very fact of it getting made it means that certain aspects you don’t necessarily want in, aren’t going to be in there, period. And that is not the way you do good journalism.” Last Dance doesn’t necessarily avoid the controversial moments in Jordan’s career, but it also depicts them how Jordan wants you to see them. 

Jordan’s ruthless competitive streak shows as he bullies and belittles teammates, treating everyone around him poorly. Sportswriter Dave Zirin criticised the lionisation of Jordan's bullying in an April 22 article in The Nation, stating “while exposing a new generation to Jordan's greatness, the filmmaker also projects this bullying as critical to his success. Former presidents and Hall of Famers, in tiresome fashion, pay tribute to his 'intensity' without a thought to it’s toxicity.” 

One key target of Jordan’s behaviour is Bulls' general manager Jerry Krause, who The Last Dance vilifies. It portrays him as a petty schemer who was solely to blame for the dismantling of the Bulls dynasty post 1998. While not entirely blameless, this scapegoating is unfair, especially as it fails to mention that Krause had died in 2017 and there is no one in The Last Dance to tell his side of the story. 

Jordan's career also stands in stark contrast to iconic activist athletes from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick, whose commitment to using their platform for social change came at great personal cost. Jordan, however, has been dedicated solely to pursuit of his corporate bottom line, refusing to speak up for any cause that may threaten that bottom line. Jordan refused to act on allegations of labour abuses in Nike sweatshops and refused to publicly oppose segrationist bigot Senator Jesse Helms, allegedly stating: "Republicans buy sneakers too". 

When confronted with this alleged quote, Jordan doesn’t deny it. Instead, he justifies his actions by saying: “The way I go out of my life, I set examples. If it inspires you, great, if it doesn’t, then maybe I'm not the person you should be following.” 

A counter example of an activist-athlete is Jordan's Bulls' teammate Craig Hodges, a crucial part of the first two Bulls championships who believed that athletes should use their platform to advocate for social change. Hodges wrote an eight-page letter to then US president George HW Bush to protest racism in the US and the 1991 Gulf war. 

It is actions such as these that led to Hodges being run out of the NBA in 1992, a fate shared by NFL star Colin Kaepernick more recently over his refusal to stand for the US national anthem in protest against racism. The Last Dance attempts to erase Hodge’s legacy, with the player a notable absence from the series. However, Hodges has refused to be silent, continuing his activism and speaking out in countless interviews about his time with the Bulls. 

The Last Dance is great viewing, especially if you grew up in the 90s and want a bit of nostalgia for the champion Bulls' teams. But the documentary remains essentially corporate brand management for Jordan and the NBA. We can admire Jordan's skill, but we should look at The Last Dance with more critical eyes. 

As Zirin noted: “Jordan is effectively using this documentary to tell a new generation that you don’t have to care about anything if it gets in the way of the ultimate, to be number 1. To hell with the person to your left or right." 

Especially now, in times of the Covid-19 virus, this ethos needs to be rejected in favour of one of solidarity and compassion. So it is best to not “be like Mike.” 

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