Slave Labor, Sex Trafficking and The Cult of Air Jordan

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Six championship rings, ten scoring titles, five MVPs, one thousand snapshots of athletic transcendence–the legacy of Michael Jordan reads like a record of the immortal accolades of Greek gods. MJ was the apotheosis of sport. He is basketball’s statue of David, less a human and more an ideal. Jordan was wed to the goddess of Nike and on “wings of victory” the two have soared to the heights of global commerce.

One question, though…was it worth it?

In the past month, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, basketball’s Los Angeles luminary of skyhooks and bikram yoga, came out and said that Jordan “chose commerce over conscience.” Stephon Marbury, the celebrated New York City point guard and Chinese basketball champion, has been far more vindictive in recent Twitter comments, saying

“Real people know. I’m off the kids getting killed for Jordans. I hate that this dude won’t change that. Greedy!…Jordan has been robbing the hood since.”

With the NBA’s default culture of #23-idolatry being what it is, is it possible that there’s growing discontent in the empire?

When Kobe Bryant was charged with rape in 2004 (and subsequently acquitted) he lost all of his corporate endorsements and became something of a persona non grata. When the squeaky-clean, Big Mac-munching Chicago Adonis is implicated in condoning sweatshop labor, factory abuse of Asian workers and blatant sex trafficking, however, we all turn the other cheek and our culture’s skyline of skyscrapers remains intact.

Yes, the indignities committed by Nike and Jordan Brand are numerous and well-documented. Even the New York Times couldn’t help but chime in back in 2006. Going back to the early 90s and remaining consistent to the present day, there has been a disturbing waterfall of accounts from Sri Lankan people, Indonesian people, Bangladeshi people and many more, all making the same desperate complaints.

You know, just the usual stuff. Sexual abuse; child labor and complicity with trafficking rings; unpaid labor; unethical workplace treatment; dehumanizing authoritarian behavior reminiscent of the Roots miniseries with LeVar Burton–in other words, nothing we haven’t become desensitized to. Nike’s outward efforts to clean up their act has done little to plug any leaks.

By the way, don’t get it twisted–I’m a diehard Chicago Bulls fan who literally grew up watching Michael conquer the world of hapless Charles Barkleys and Karl Malones. As another pathetic sports fan who wishes to see his personal values reflected in his favorite athlete’s personality, I have a vested interest in exonerating Michael from all this bullshit.

Let’s take a look at what MJ said back in 1996 on the subject, as quoted in the Chicago Tribune:

“I think that’s Nike’s decision to make sure they do everything that can be correctly done. I don’t know the complete situation. Why should I? I’m trying to do my job. Hopefully, Nike will do the right thing, whatever that might be.”

Ahem. Well…that doesn’t really fit with the heroic narrative, does it? I make billions off a smooth jumpshot. It’s not my business to ensure that human rights violations don’t happen in my name. In fact, if you changed the names and asked people what they thought, they’d probably identify Michael Jordan as a psychopath…right?

Hey, maybe we should encourage our kids to not be like Mike. When Nas recently rapped on a song “Athletes today are afraid to make Muhammed Ali statements,” maybe we should have listened. Remember when Muhammed Ali refused to fight for the U.S. military in Vietnam, risking his entire career and reputation? I mean, what happened to that kind of heroism in sports?

As with almost everything in today’s consumer culture, it’s a matter of perception, and Nike is one of the world’s leaders in brand perception. Their biggest success has been in identifying with youth culture, specifically hip-hop culture, and making the Swoosh symbol a sign of rebellious individuality. Their tagline might as well read, “Nike: I Am That I Am”.

We can find the aforementioned Nas rapping on his seminal debut record Illmatic in 1994, “Wipe the sweat off my dome/Spit the phlegm on the streets/The Nikes on my feet, keep my cipher, complete.” The idea being that, without a pair of Nikes, a young person’s vibe is only second-rate. It’s the spiritualizing of Nike and its Jordan Brand, the transition from brand to global totem, that has made the company so successful.

Yes, it’s a cult. As an inveterate hoops and hip-hop head myself, I can confirm that much from personal experience. Have any retro-Jordan collector show you his closet of bright-colored, unworn Jordan arcana and tell me he’s not a religious zealot! “It’s all about the retro kicks, homie…”

Is it, though? You see, the problem is that our most powerful multinational corporations could give a damn about labor rights, starving families, and third-world victims of quiet, off-the-record rape. It’s all about the money. Why keep factory production local when you can outsource the work for cheap?

This is why free trade agreements, like NAFTA and the TPP, are so controversial. They talk about “leveling the playing field”, but for whom? When you get down to the nitty-gritty, you realize that the entire game is rigged for corporate profit. As long as we remain apathetic, human suffering will continue, and I’m afraid His Airness is too busy refining his golf swing to care.

Again, I have to call out the hip-hop community. We have to stop associating hip-hop with brand-worship and start associating it with awakening and freedom. That’s what it was made for in the first place, and also why Stephon Marbury voicing his criticism is such a big deal. We needed to hear that.

It’s time we hold MJ accountable for his cowardice in the face of the real “Monstars”, because that scene in Space Jam where they have him chained up on an alien planet forever shooting hoops to the entertainment of a jostling crowd is all to real. That’s our planet, only we won’t be getting an assist from Bugs Bunny.

So we know what Michael Jordan has done. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s question is now turned on us. Will we choose commerce, or consciousness?

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