Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Jordan Conspiracy and an Unlikely "Deep Throat" Analogy

I just watched the "30 for 30" film on Michael Jordan's season-long experiment with baseball. Like most of these documentary films in Bill Simmons' brainchild that try to explore some of the most remarkable events in the world of sports in the last three decades the Jordan documentary was well done. But one of the arguments that the film (and subsequent coverage) has put forward does not pass the test of stringent argumentation.

For years there has been speculation that Jordan "retired" when he did because he had actually been forced to do so by NBA Commissioner David Stern over Jordan's increasingly reckless penchant for gambling. I don't happen to buy this theory inasmuch as there is no actual evidence for it, and I'm quaint about requiring evidence to prove assertions, not least of all those that are damning. But no matter the flaws in the theory, the following argument still does not work:

"It's just nothing more than crackpot theory," he says, sounding exasperated. "Every journalist I talked to said, 'Don't you realize, Ron?' — Every Chicago sports journalist, every national journalist — 'We went down there, we spent a year looking for the smoking gun! We would have won the Pulitzer! If we had gotten it, we would have been spurred!'"

There are at least two major flaws with this argument:

This generation of sports journalists is the same one that managed to miss steroid use in baseball until well after the story developed. And sports journalists have long had an interesting and conflicted relationship with the athletes they have covered. The argument that it did not exist simply because journalists were looking for it is barely an argument at all, never mind being a good one.

Furthermore, and more importantly, it's not as if there had to be a large number of participants in a coverup. If Stern felt like he had the goods on Jordan (and again -- I don't think there were any goods to be had) he could have simply said "Michael, take some time off and this does not become a Pete Rose situation. Fight me and it does." Only two people had to know about this arrangement, two people who both would have had every interest not to talk. There would not have to be a smoking gun at all if these are the only two people who knew about it.

Think of an imperfect but not inapt analogy: Deep Throat's identity. As high as sports journalists might think the stakes are in what they do, political journalism covers a world where the stakes are much higher and the participants have actual power. And yet for three decades no one was able to uncover the identity of Deep Throat despite the fact that more people of necessity had to know about Mark Felt than would have needed to know about a Jordan suspension (at minimum Felt, Woodward, Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee -- and that is a bare and implausible minimum. Forget for now that most of Woodward and Bernstein's historical role is the stuff of myth -- they became cultural icons despite not actually getting most of the story right.)

I don't buy the whole "Jordan on secret suspension for gambling" conspiracy theory. But its plausibility does not rest on the mighty investigative acumen of sports journalists, most of whom only popped in for a Jordan story here or there simply because the whole thing was so surreal and not because they were deeply engaged in debunking the retirement story.


Anonymous said...

You're right--just because a story has not been proved does not mean it could not have happened. You make some valid points against your own position on conspiracies, and the the saga of Deep Throat provides an excellent example. Your supposition on Jordan and Stern being the only two to know is valid, but it does bring to mind my mother's quoting of my grandmoter (her mother-in-law) who was known to say, "Two can keep a secret if one of them is dead." It's another generality, true, but one that carries some validity.

dcat said...

Anon --
Except in this case both sides would have an equal desire not to have the secret come out, and neither would benefit if it did. Again -- I do not believe there is anything to the rumor, but if it were true only Stern and Jordan would have to know.

Best --