Jordan and Gender: Workers’ Power to Undo Patriarchy

Like every other basketball fan, I’ve just finished watching ESPN’s ten-episode series, “The Last Dance.” It was about the 1997-’98 championship year of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ – their sixth such triumph in eight years.

The series took on special meaning for me, since at the same time, I was reading the late Allan G. Johnson’s book, The Gender Knot: unraveling our patriarchal legacy. Johnson’s analysis made me realize that I was witnessing in the Jordan video saga the stark exposure of the same system Johnson was explaining in his book. Feminist scholar, bell hooks, calls it the “white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist patriarchy.” That’s the oppressive paradigm in which all of us – men and women alike – live and move and have our being. Hooks and Johnson agree on that point.

But Johnson goes further. He suggests guidelines for escaping the paradigm to make room for its replacement. Following Episode 10 of “The Last Dance,” I found myself wishing Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls had followed their direction. If they had, we might today be living in a very different world.

 Before I get to that, consider first The Gender Knot, and then “The Last Dance.” Together they reveal our patriarchal dilemma.

The Gender Knot

The main thought of The Gender Knot is that every one of us is influenced by a powerful force called patriarchy. It represents our culture’s fundamental paradigm – its unspoken social arrangement and set of assumptions – this one driven by men’s fears and their need to control. It promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered. It’s what undergirds capitalism, racism, classism, and, of course, sexism.

For Johnson, patriarchy sets the rules of the game. It’s like we’re playing “Monopoly” barely aware that its instructions force us to adopt attitudes and activities that would be disturbing in other situations. “Sorry to drive you into bankruptcy,” we might find ourselves saying, “but those are the rules of the game.”

Understood in this sense, patriarchy governs the jokes men tell, our banter with other men. It governs male self-images as we compare ourselves with peers, competitors, co-workers, friends, characters in movies and on the field of play. It also governs workplace interactions between labor and management.

For many, that thesis in itself might be familiar. What was not as familiar (to me at least) is Johnson’s more penetrating insight that patriarchy is not primarily about men’s fearful and controlling relationships with women.

Instead, patriarchy is chiefly about relations among men. Psychologically, it’s about men justifying and protecting our “manly” and strong self-image before other men whose scrutiny hovers over every aspect of life – on the athletic field, at the bar, in the stadium, in the bedroom, and on the job. In all of these venues, we judge ourselves through a patriarchal gaze. At the deepest level, then, it’s other men we fear – how they might threaten, ridicule, replace, or even rape us.

Economically, it’s about how they might fire us from our jobs after our work has made them rich.

Jordan’s Last Dance

Those watching “The Last Dance” with such analysis in mind can see it played out in the series.

It brings us into the hyper-male context of locker room, court, fawning reporters, and fans. (Virtually no women have significant roles in any of the episodes.) It’s an entirely man’s world and so provides a kind of petri dish for observing and testing Johnson’s theory about men’s fears and desire to control. It also provides a context for analyzing the bigger patriarchal issue of white supremacist capitalism.

At the psychological level, “The Last Dance” displays situations where males must continually prove their fleeting manly worth through attitudes and activities that would be disturbing in other situations. The rules of the basketball world turn them into super patriarchs – openly, proudly (but also fearfully) competitive, aggressive, greedy, self-promoting, belligerent, domineering, vengeful, trash-talking, and preening – again, in an exclusively man’s world completely devoid of women and children.

All of that is true especially of Michael Jordan, the principal focus of the ESPN series. Under the threat of inevitably waning powers and the advent of younger rising stars, he’s driven to constantly prove he’s the best by vanquishing and humiliating all comers. He has to defend his position as GOAT (greatest of all time) by winning more scoring championships, All Star Game nominations, MVP awards, Olympic gold medals, and (above all) NBA championships than any other player.

And that brings us to the economic aspect of “The Last Dance” and its unwitting depiction of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. . .

Though universally admired, Jordan’s a kind of tyrant on the job. In labor terms, he’s the ultimate foreman. As a result, grown giants of men – Michael’s teammates – alternately cower and obsequiously smile under M.J.’s judgmental gaze. His leadership style embodies the fear and control Johnson identifies as patriarchal system’s underlying values. So, he berates his teammates, makes fun of them, gets up in their faces, laughs at them, calls them names, and (on one occasion at least) punches them out – all for the sake of more efficient production.

Ironically, Jordan is particularly hard on his boss, Jerry Krause, the General Manager of the Chicago Bulls. Jordan constantly taunts him for being fat and short – at 5’6, a full foot below his tormentor. But like a kid bullied in the school yard, Krause too does the sheepish smiley thing, rolls over and takes it.

However, beneath it all, Krause, perhaps the most unathletic person in the story, is actually its most powerful patriarch. Yes, he’s fat, short and white in a world of giant African American supermen. Yes, they make fun of him and resent his taking credit for the Bulls’ success and for his vendetta against Phil Jackson, the team’s popular coach.

But in the end, it’s Krause along with Jerry Reinsdorf (the Bulls’ owner) who’s the boss – the one who finally decides to break up the greatest basketball team of all time. And this despite his “workers’” desires and those of millions of fans.

And the reason?  In episode ten, Reinsdorf explains why. It’s the money. It’s profit. Referring to some of his frontline players, he said, “Now after the sixth championship, things are beyond our control, because it would have been suicidal to bring back Pippen, Steve Kerr, Rodman and (unintelligible). Their market value was going to be too high. They weren’t going to be worth the value they’d be getting in the market . . . So, . . . I realized we were going to have to go into a rebuild. . .”

In other words, the reason for not pursuing a seventh world championship was that that the organization would have to pay the workers too much. So, white ownership and management (Reinsdorf and Krause) bit the bullet. Or, rather, they forced their African American workers and the consumers of their product to do so.

But that’s the point. It’s the way the racist capitalist patriarchy works. It delivers to a few (usually white) men absolute power over the many. If it were up to the workers, if it were up to the consumers, the Bulls would have gone on to compete for and probably win a fourth consecutive championship. But it wasn’t profitable to the powerful few. So, it didn’t happen.

So much for consumer sovereignty. So much for workers’ rights.  

Lines of Greatest Resistance

Confronted with such dynamics both psychological and economic, Johnson’s Gender Knot asks its central question: What would it take to shift the entire paradigm even as so clearly depicted in “The Last Dance?” What can be done to transform the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal paradigm both psychologically and economically?

Johnson’s answer: take the line of greatest resistance. That’s because, like all paradigms, the very purpose of patriarchy’s system is to shunt all of us towards lines of least resistance. Its intention in all spheres is to make it easy for us to go along to get along.

On the other hand, effective resistance means:

  • Following Gandhi and embodying the paradigm we’d like to see the world adopt.
  • Realizing that most of humanity’s 250,000 years were lived under matrifocal, matrilineal, non-capitalist societies.
  • Therefore, rejecting the myth that patriarchal capitalism is somehow inevitable and permanent.
  • Giving up the comforting idea that there’s nothing we can do to synchronize our lives and decisions with history’s ineluctable paradigm shift.
  • Rejecting the related myth that change is meaningless or irrelevant unless we’re around to see it. (We can’t use our human lifespan to judge social progress.)
  • Embracing in every sphere every chance to interrupt the flow of “business as usual.”
  • Daring to make people feel uncomfortable.
  • Beginning each day with the question, “What risk for change will I take today?”
  • To that end, adopting the slogan “Organize, organize, organize.”

Conclusion

The great Larry Bird once described Michael Jordan as “God pretending to be Michael Jordan.” Indiana Pacers legend, Reggie Miller, called him “Black Jesus.” Such transcendent references make me think. . .

Imagine if the collection of black workers called the Chicago Bulls led by their highly driven and charismatic foreman had shared the consciousness explained in The Gender Knot. What if they had organized, interrupted the flow of business as usual, and taken (admittedly large in their case) risks for change in the white supremacist system of capitalist patriarchy?

What if Michael Jordan had used his charisma and marvelous talents in the service of Johnson’s suggestions? What if the Bulls had not simply rolled over for the two Jerrys — Krause and Reinsdorf? What if they had employed their unprecedented status and star power in the eyes of millions worldwide to similarly raise public consciousness about the patriarchal paradigm that oppresses us all.

What if Jordan and company had just said “No!? We’re embracing and appropriating our own power. What’s more, we’re going to organize the NBA Players’ Association into a collective worker-owned cooperative run by us, for us, and for our fans? After all, you owners need us more than we need you. You’re history!”

It would have been revolutionary – and not just for the NBA.

That’s what might have been. But it’s not just fantasy. Changes like that are entirely possible. The fact is that workers united have far more power than Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls ever had.

And as both The Gender Knot and “The Last Dance” suggest, the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy is more vulnerable than it seems.     

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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