Once again, sports offers an important look at people’s potential to skew the truth. Last time was about the hype of the NFL referee debacle. This time, we see humanity’s tendency to idolize.
Recently on ESPN, two men in suits were having a heated discussion about who is the best basketball player ever. As LeBron James continues to accumulate accomplishments, voices from well-known players and coaches have equaled him to Michael Jordan. But it was made very clear from watching the men in suits that such discussion was inappropriate. And their reactions to this comparison was met not just with disagreement, but offense and vehemence. I always knew Michael Jordan had become something more than an athlete from his days playing basketball. He was on TV, movies, and his name still sells merchandise. Even so, I underestimated the impact Michael Jordan had on people’s lives–not because of what he did for them, but because of what he became in their minds.
I include a couple videos for your viewing pleasure. But in case you don’t have the time–or if you’re at work and don’t want to get caught–I quoted the best lines from each. In them you can see the reaction that someone would even dare challenge the great Michael Jordan:
October 25th, 2011
“That is blasphemous.” -Stephen A. Smith
“How dare you–how dare you say such a thing!” -Stephen A. Smith
June 21st, 2012
“It’s an insult to Michael.” -Stephen A. Smith
He says of Michael Jordan, “I’m thinking of the killer, the guy who would step on your throat to take you out.” -Stephen A. Smith
“Michael Jordan was a much better shooter than Lebron has ever dreamed of being.” -Skip Bayless
“It is ludicrous. It is blasphemous. And on this fairly sunny day here, I’m afraid we’re all gonna get struck my lightning for just bringing it up.” -Skip Bayless
Meanwhile, the moderator points out that statistically James and Jordan, “are as close as they could possible be”.
There are other such examples of outrage from other commentators. In fact, each time a recognizable person makes this comparison between LeBron James and Michael Jordan, it gets picked up by the sport headlines because of its controversy. (We’d never see headlines if someone compared Brett Favre to Johnny Unitas–two NFL legends.)
Michael Jordan did things in his career that were extraordinary, and as a result (and as evident by these clips), has become something more than a man. He’s a symbol of those moments that made people feel wonder and awe, a symbol of victory and heart. How important those symbols–and our legends–are to us! Because if you tarnish your symbol, what happens to your definition? Thus, these commentators fight to see this symbol remain untouched.
Other commentors online echoed the untouchable sentiment:
“Mj is always gonna be the best.”
“Just like there will never be a boxer better than Ali.”
It approaches religious. People become unwilling to listen or see the reasoning. They’ll exaggerate history and neglect reality because of their attachment to legends and symbols.
Certainly this tendency goes beyond sports. Joseph Campbell famously spent his career studying the power of humans’ legends and myths. It’s absolutely fascinating seeing how much of our world is shaped by the heroes and legends we hold dear. I recommend you watch his interviews for some incredible insight into humanity.
In Tony Horwitz’s fantastic book, A Voyage Long and Strange, he offers a reality check of the colonization of North America between Columbus in 1492 and the Mayflower in 1620. He revealed that most people think the Mayflower landing on Plymouth Rock was the start of American colonization when, in fact, Spaniards and French explorers had by then already reached half of the present-day continental U.S. states. Conquistadors made it as far as Kansas! But Horwitz continually ran into folks who held the belief–even after being told otherwise–that the pilgrims were the start of it all. Horwitz came to understand the importance of legend and myth, that to have these was sometimes more important to people than truth.
I respect for this need. And it’s interesting to see it play out on ESPN. I guess I would like people know, though, that we all have this tendency. So try not to let it interfere with truth when something more important than ranking basketball players is up for grabs.
to new plateaus,
p.s. LeBron James is a better basketball player than Michael Jordan.