Contrasting Heroes

One of the most famous of the “Great Books” that educated people read for centuries — and which has been dumped on the garbage heap recently with the rest of the books by  “dead white European males” — is The Noble Lives of the Grecians and Romans by Plutarch. The book, which in translation is about 1300 pages in length, attempts to draw parallels between the lives of famous Greeks and Romans to serve as a model of behavior  for young men growing up following the book’s appearance in the early years of the Roman Empire. Plutarch was born around 50 A..D. and while many of the biographies he wrote are now considered inaccurate, he is nonetheless praised for providing us with “a  faithful record of the historical tradition of his age.” In a word, we are given a very detailed picture of what it is that people in those days, and for generations that followed, regarded as exemplary conduct. Most of the men Plutarch wrote about were regarded as heroes, men like Solon and Pericles of Athens, Alexander of Macedon, and Julius Caesar of Rome.

Plutarch, we are told by his modern editor, was “a moralist rather than an historian. His interest is less for politics and the changes of empires, and much more for personal character and individual actions and motives to action; duty performed and rewarded; arrogance chastised, hasty anger corrected; humanity, fair dealing, and generosity triumphing in the visible, or relying on the invisible world. His mind in his biographic memoirs is continually running on the Aristotelian Ethics and the high Platonic theories which formed the religion of the educated population of his time.”

In the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Thirteen, or the year of “His Airness” as they call one of this country’s greatest heroes, Michael Jordan, we are provided a study in contrasts. This week’s Sports Illustrated is about 40% full of pictures and stories that provide us with ample evidence of the degree to which this man is revered in this country. If we hadn’t seen the magazine, our eyes and ears could have provided ample evidence after a few moments of watching ESPN which seems to run on and on….(and on) about Jordan. The reason? We are nearing the 50th birthday of His Airness.

And how does Jordan compare with Pericles, Alexander, and Caesar? Not very well, sad to say. He is clearly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, basketball player who ever set foot on the court. Just ask him and he will proudly show you his six N.B.A. Championship rings. But as far as character is concerned, Jordan leaves something to be desired to say the least. His focus does not appear to be on living the good life, except as that is defined by Madison Avenue and the American population at large. He is worth a fortune and most, if not all of that fortune, he spends on himself. Consider the “newly built $12.4 million, 11 bedroom mansion in Jupiter, Florida on three acres of land” where Jordan and his 34 year-old fiancée recently moved — as we are told in Sports Illustrated. The home is near a golf course and also near his close friend Tiger Woods. Jordan loves to play golf and gamble, we are told, and he is part owner of the Charlotte Bobcats of the N.B.A. — a team which badly needs a player of near-Jordan caliber. To be near the team, Jordan also owns a “$3.2 million penthouse in a condominium in downtown Charlotte.” He paid $50 million of his own money to buy into the Bobcats. His money comes from endorsements, mostly: Nike pays him handsomely to put his name on basketball shoes which cost the kids of this country $250.00 a pair — an amount of money that mothers of young boys and girls in the inner cities must somehow come up with in order that their children get the very latest in foot gear. And if you are hungry you can enjoy a meal at one of the steak houses that bears his name and even delight in a five-course meal “inspired by his life and career” for only $125.00.

In a word, Michael Jordan represents in so many ways the ideals and achievements admired in this country which stand in such sharp contrast with the ideals and achievements of the “Grecians and Romans” Plutarch wrote about. In case you wondered, this is called “progress.”

16 thoughts on “Contrasting Heroes

  1. “basketball shoes which cost the kids of this country $250.00 a pair — an amount of money that mothers of young boys and girls in the inner cities must somehow come up with in order that their children get the very latest in foot gear. ”

    i believe you; i remember being shocked at the 60-dollar a pair shoes twenty+ years ago. $250 would provide soup, blue-plate special & small juice for a lad for about 80 days! (here in ecuador)

  2. Great blog, Hugh! It is very sad — Jordan, in a lot of ways, should represent the ideal American dream. He was cut from his high school basketball team as a sophomore, then just worked hard at his game, improved and became a starter in high school then a star in college. And in the NBA, no one worked harder than he did on the court — in practices (even for the Dream Team of the 1992 Olympics) he pushed his teammates very hard with profane, harsh challenges to their work ethic. Imagine him doing that to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson before the Olympics, let alone with his Bulls teams! He was the best defensive player of his era, along with a scoring machine. And yet, all that made him more or less the equivalent of a Wall Street banker who works 70 hours a week and, when he finally has off time or burns out, he is self-absorbed and gives nothing (or at least not much) of his wealth or social gifts back to the community. It’s the American dream taken an ugly turn. Jordan was often asked to use his prominence to speak about race, or even international injustices (he was for a long time the most famous man on the globe) but refused. He gambles with incredibly high stakes, smokes awful cigars, spends a lot of money, as you write, on luxury homes. And, again, like a Wall Street investor, he now makes his money off other people’s money — through endorsements, not through actually producing anything. That parallels one of the core problems with American society and the economy: the gutting of the manufacturing class. It’s an old problem. Hamilton ran into a huge crisis on the very first day the first Bank of the United States opened, as speculators went wild. But he corrected it quickly, in a simpler era. Now, things are too vast and complex to correct as easily, and Michael Jordan represents not the rise of the average person through hard work anymore, but the craven desires and lifestyle of those so far detached from the regular American. In other words, he is no Stan Musial, the great Stan the Man, who died a couple weeks ago — another athlete who, through hard work, rose to the top of his sport, but never rose into the realm of the arrogant and always stayed closely grounded to his fans.

  3. Granted, there have been other athletes who have followed the Jordan path, including Musial’s great contemporary, Joe DiMaggio, who was aloof and self-absorbed as a player and only worsened in retirement. Plus, DiMaggio became deeply enmeshed with the Mafia of New York and New Jersey — a sort of legitimizer of some serious mobsters who would pay him well simply to be in his company or if he attended special events, such as the christening of a mobster’s grandchild, etc. That went on for decades. But the rise-through-hard-work-ethic stories we used to celebrate were usually about those who, like Jordan, fought to overcome early failures and obstacles, but then, when they succeeded, gave back an awful lot to their society: Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, etc. More recently, even Bill Clinton to a large extent was that kind of story: rose from not great wealth and deep obscurity, using his intellect and hard work, to reach the presidency. Of course, Clinton could be awfully self-absorbed/self-interested too (!) but he still managed and manages ways to compartmentalize that part of himself to leave a huge other part of himself free to continue to contribute to the greater good. Jordan can’t seem to do that.

    • True, but I do wonder if any of those people have the stature in this society that people like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan have.


  4. To those of us who have been exposed to the ancient virtues, it should be apparent that the US of A is spiraling down. To what it is impossible to say. With very few exceptions, the colleges and universities no longer teach virtue or even present it as teachable. The ideal of the excellent man has now degraded to athletes! For shame! I fear for my grandsons!

  5. Too bad. He has such potential to do more and be a real role model from that perch on high…at least he has been relatively free of scandals, right? That is refreshing in this day and age…

  6. Hugh, I like the post and comments, in particular, Dana’s. Jordan’s work ethic is to be greatly admired. He was not only talented, he worked very hard at his craft, in particular the less enjoyable parts of basketball, playing defense. He also made his teammates better. Yet, I agree fully with the point about Jordan and Tiger Woods not using their platforms to speak to the poverty and inequity that still exists in our society. I have no evidence of this comment, but I believe they were forewarned by the people whose products they sold (including their sports), not to tick off white America. You and we will make more money if you don’t. was probably the message they heard. Contrast that with Jim Brown (one of the greatest football players ever) and Bill Russell (the greatest team basketball player ever), who were outspoken in the 1960’s about race and by lending their names, voices and actions along with people like Harry Belafonte, they greatly abetted the Civil Rights movement. Off subject, but there is a terrific documentary on Harry Belafonte and all he did over his career to help the disenfranchised – now that is a hero. Well done, BTG

  7. Hugh, both you and BTG have hit it out of the park today. The fact that the likes of Jordan got such a huge spread in Sports Illustrated just proves that this country has fallen for the flash as something to aspire to, and actual substance have been left behind. Ethics and morals are now so far behind winning at all costs, and measuring achievement and quality in terms of dollars, homes, and cars; it is a sad commentary.

    Magic made mistakes in his life, even slipped off the morality table a few times. The difference is he owned up to those mistakes, and has worked tirelessly to improve himself and his country.

    Tiger has badly fallen off his perch, but the difference is, he still has not really owned up to it, and still has done nothing to help his fellow mankind. Jordan at least pushed everyone on his team to succeed. When members of Tiger’s team began to succeed, (See Butch Harmon and also Tiger’s long time caddy), he fired them.

    Our role models in this country are ridiculous. Sports salaries, in particular, are at such silly levels that I won’t in any manner contribute to their coffers. How is a Michael Jordan held is higher esteem because he can shoot a basket than the man whose finger is only inches from the red phone, and whose decisions can affect tens of millions of people?

    I just don’t get it, and I do believe, that this country is spiraling down at an ever increasing rate.

    Thanks for writing this.

    • Thanks for the comment. We tend to measure our heroes by their accomplishments on the court or playing field rather than by what Martin Luther King called “the content of their character.”


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