On Michael Jordan's Orwellian Turn As An NBA Team Owner

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 05: Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan arrives for NBA labor negotiations at Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers on November 5, 2011 in New York City. Players have been seeking 52.5 percent of revenues in their favor but owners want a deal at 53-47 along with a hard sallary cap. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Michael Jordan was as revolutionary a player as there ever was. But as an NBA owner, he's become part of that which he overcame.

Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which. -- Animal Farm

In George Orwell's classic novel, on one level an allegory for the Soviet Union under Stalin, the worker animals spy on a meeting between the pigs and the other farmers. The book begins with the pigs leading a revolution to overthrow the tyranny of man on their farm, but over time, they slowly start to look and act like the humans they once hated.

By the end, owning the farm changes the pigs so much the other animals no longer recognize them. For Orwell, who wrote the book after narrowly escaping the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, it was the way of all insurrections: the revolutionaries become the oppressors.

And there were few basketball players more revolutionary than Michael Jordan. He wasn't content to be a great player; he figured he had as much right to the money his basketball ability generated for the NBA as the owners. He was an employee of the Chicago Bulls, but he was the boss of Brand Jordan.

In the 1995 labor negotiations, he was one of the hard-liners pushing the union to decertify in order to get the best possible deal. That deal ended up being very good to him: he made $33 million in each of the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. In all likelihood, when adjusted for inflation, no NBA player will ever make as much in a single season.

That's because, in 1999, the owners cut a deal with the "middle-class" of veteran role players to cap the salaries of the stars who would come after Jordan. And while he retired rather than take a drastic pay cut, Jordan was still at the center of the negotiations. When former Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin complained of the financial difficulties he was facing, Jordan famously replied that "if you can't make it work economically, you should sell the team."

No player knew how to make the NBA work economically better than Jordan. He redefined "crossing over", leveraging his athletic fame to become a commercial icon and scoring lucrative sponsorship deals with All-American companies like McDonald's, Hanes and Gatorade.

Even in 2011, eight years after his final retirement, he earned nearly $60 million in advertisements. Jordan made more money than Kobe or LeBron last year; now he wants them to accept drastic pay cuts so he can make even more.

When he bought the Charlotte Bobcats in 2010, he wasn't just becoming the second black man to ever own a major professional sports franchise in the United States. He was also the first former NBA player to be a majority owner of an NBA franchise: "Here's the difference between rich and wealthy," Chris Rock once said in a stand-up routine. "Shaq is rich; the white man who signs his check is wealthy."

The difference, as Rock explained, is generational. Wealth is something you can hand down to your kids and grand kids. It's owning assets that appreciate in value, things which let your money make money for you. More than anything else, it's being part of the right club.

Jay-Z, a minority owner of the New Jersey Nets used mostly to distract the media from the shady land deal that allowed for the construction of their new Brooklyn stadium, isn't in it. Jordan is.

Wealth allows a family to stay atop society even if the talent skips a generation. Jordan's oldest son, Jeffrey, is a 6'1 guard who walked on at Illinois and averaged 1.2 points a game in three seasons before transferring to Central Florida to play with his younger brother Marcus. Marcus is a 6'3 junior guard who averaged 15.2 points on 40.6% shooting for the Knights last season.

Jordan had to beat astronomical odds to become a professional athlete. Pro sports are just the family business for his sons. You don't need to be an NBA player to become an NBA executive; you just need to know the right people. Jeffrey and Marcus Jordan will one day control a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars; Jay-Z's children are free to keep purchasing front-row tickets.

Jordan was born before the passage of the Civil Rights Act and grew up in a small North Carolina city that was a major port for the Confederate Navy. His parents worked at an electric plant and a bank; their son is one of the key decision-makers in boardroom negotiations worth billions of dollars.

He is the American Dream: a man who used hard work and ingenuity to climb the economic ladder all the way to the top, a worker who earned enough capitol to become an owner. But in the process, he's aligned himself with people he once loathed against people just like him who are fighting to hang on to the very successes he once fought so hard for. That's the part of the American Dream we prefer not to think about.

As Orwell reminds us in Animal Farm, every utopia has a dark side.    

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