Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why Dennis Rodman is the Man

Dennis Rodman

It’s been over ten years since Dennis Rodman was a relevant presence in the National Basketball Association. That’s a long time in professional sports, a lifetime culturally. Since Rodman’s last full NBA season—the 1997-98 season in which Rodman helped the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls win their sixth title in eight years—we’ve witnessed, amongst many other things, the meteoric rises of both the internet and reality television. I mention these two mediums specifically because, over the last decade, each has contributed to a pop cultural democratization that makes the “antics” of a guy like Dennis Rodman look antiquated. With social networking and blogging websites like Twitter, every person has the ability to make their opinions heard to near-worldwide audience. Professional athletes tweet from the locker room during halftime. Everyday fans converse directly with their favorite celebrities in 140-character increments. Reality television works in a similar manner. Never before has the idea of celebrity been so attainable—there are television channels now wholly dedicated to producing and airing shows starring everyday people who just want to be famous.

These cultural shifts are important to keep in mind when discussing Dennis Rodman because, as wild as it is to think of now, our culture in the mid-90s was much more close-minded and unwelcoming to provocateurs like the Worm. Then, the prime movers of pop culture were print magazines and television networks and cable channels owned by large corporate entities. Nascent independent and non-establishment cultural forces did not yet have the access that, today, the internet provides. Take 1996 Dennis Rodman and plug him into today’s pop culture and NBA and he would not really be as sensational a story. Remember Dennis Rodman in the proper mid-90s context and you’ll realize the threat he represented.

The 1990s NBA in which Rodman played was a microcosm of traditional patriarchal culture, one that thrived on the deification of its ideal, stereotypical masculine stars. More than any other major American professional sports league, the NBA is a league of superstars first, of teams second. This business model can be attributed to the greatest player to ever play the game, Michael Jordan, and the NBA’s management, led by league commissioner David Stern. As Jordan’s skills and worldwide fame crested in the 1990s, the NBA thrived on exploiting the images of its good-natured, family-oriented superstar players. This has always been a contentious dynamic from a racial standpoint. You have a white commissioner molding and controlling the professional destinies of a set of players, over 80% of which are black. Beyond racial issues, though, the NBA has also been (especially in the Jordan era) directly involved in perpetuating archaic, stereotypical masculinity—the strong, straight, family man that plays within the society’s (in this case, the NBA’s) rules and codes. Unlike superstars like Charles Barkley, who controversially proclaimed “I am not a role model” in 1993 Nike commercial but never really departed from the star-driven system beyond that statement, Dennis Rodman rejected the NBA establishment tradition completely. As he described in his eye-opening 1996 memoir, Bad As I Want To Be:
The NBA image of a man is the one they put out on the commercials, with guys smiling and waving to the crowd. All the happy horseshit. They want everyone to be Grant Hill—a guy from Duke with all the flashy moves. Grant Hill can play, I’ve got no problem with him, but isn’t there room for some other kind of player out there? Some other kind of man?

I don’t fit into the mold of the NBA man, and I think I’ve been punished financially for it.
What stands out in this excerpt is Rodman’s call for a new kind of man. After a night in 1993 in which he nearly committed suicide, Rodman chose to “kill the imposter”: “I killed the Dennis Rodman that had tried to conform to what everybody wanted him to be.” His transformation—most strikingly in personality and physical appearance—went completely against the NBA’s preferred image. Bleached hair, wild tattoos, diverse and unexpected outfits off the court, Rodman outwardly projected the multi-faceted personality he had always been. But in finally being true to himself, he was met with utter resistance by an establishment that refused to recognize his personal emancipation as a positive. Despite the NBA’s best efforts to force Rodman into conformity—Rodman was fined nearly $1 million throughout his career—the Worm never acquiesced, staunchly remaining himself:
This [his refusal to conform] scared the NBA. This was out of their control. I was coloring outside the lines, and the league didn’t know where it would lead next.

I know what scared them: they were afraid I might bring something totally different back to the game, and that’s dignity. Dignity for all players. Being human. They’re afraid of that. They don’t want to see guys going out there and getting tattoos or voicing their opinions.
The NBA could never defeat or silence Rodman because he was just too good. Over the course of his career, he was a part of five NBA championship teams; he won two Defensive Player of the Year awards, seven rebounding titles, and appeared on the All-NBA Defensive First Team seven times. Unlike many athletes who struggle to keep their fledgling careers alive with wacky behavior and publicity stunts (think of Freddie “FredEx” Mitchell, the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver who tried to stave off irrelevance with crazy outfits and outrageous press conference comments), Rodman’s “off-beat” personality and behavior was genuine, and his performance on the court never suffered—it thrived—because of it. In fact, the best years of Rodman’s career came when he directly challenged the NBA’s notion of masculinity. Only when he refused to let the dominant, image-making power structure define him as a person—to use the Worm’s own words: when he refused to let the NBA make him into a “robot that can dunk”—did Dennis Rodman peak as a professional and individual.

This, in my mind, is Rodman’s enduring legacy: his active attempts to bring dignity and individuality to a culture that prided itself on conformity and perpetuation of unhealthy masculine stereotypes and images. While most people unfortunately remember the Worm through unfairly negative media representations, it’s important that Dennis Rodman be recognized for the ways in which he challenged a staunchly patriarchal culture. In refusing the be the stereotypical man they demanded he be, and in performing better than anyone else at his position on the court, Rodman can actually say he beat the patriarchy at its own game. That’s an example worth hyping.

1 comment:

Ben said...

What this post says about media and personal expression is as fascinating - if not more fascinating - than what it says about masculinity.
Dennis Rodman's queerness is something I hadn't thought about in ages, so I'm surprised at how well this post brought me back. I was never a serious NBA fan even in those days, but I remember the ubiquitous images of Dennis Rodman ca. 1996 surprisingly well.
And when I remember those images, I see how much times have changed. I can't imagine anyone receiving so much attention for that behavior these days.
Is it because of more accepting cultural trends? Is it because of the overflow of surprising images we can find so easily on the internet?
It's both and it's hard to say which came first. But now that we don't rely on intermediaries to get ourselves media exposure the way we used to, it's harder to create controversy. Today, Dennis Rodman's odd style would merit a google image search by a group of friends who would look at funny pictures of him for a minute or two before moving on to googling pictures of animals or babies.
That was what I thought about when I read the beginning of this post. But when I finished it, I realized that Dennis would still garner a lot of attention today, not for being an odd-looking basketball player, but for being an odd-looking GREAT basketball player. Perhaps his look would be less shocking today, but I think that the seeming incongruity of his look combined with his performance on the court would still be mind-blowing to audiences today.