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Chicago Bulls vs. the Chicago School: Michael Jordan, Labor, and the NBA Lockout

When Michael Jordan was a player, he repped as hard as he could for the players union. Now he’s on the other side, and just as tough. Is he a hypocrite? Or just a rational economic actor?

Chicago Bulls 1991


Steve Rhodes points me to a couple good reads on Michael Jordan’s current role as an owner in the NBA lockout—according to the New York Times, leading the “hard-line” group of owners—versus his role in labor relations as a player.

* At SB Nation, Tom Ziller writes:

In fact, as a player, he was represented by one of the fiercest player advocates in memory in David Falk. As such, MJ was at the forefront of several labor battles. He said things. They were quoted. They made the news, for Michael Jordan was an important man.

Ziller has the quotes; worth catching up on.

* In the Sun-Times, Lacy J. Banks calls Jordan a hypocrite:

During his NBA career, he always defended the average player because he was a committed, compassionate athlete. His marketing appeal helped players and owners reap millions.

Someone—I wish I could rember who or in what medium—brought up a good point the other day: Michael Jordan wants to win. Above all things, it’s what we know about him. Whether it’s on the court, or the links, or the practice gym, the most important thing to Jordan is winning. And for most of his adult life, Jordan could beat anyone at will. One of my favorite anecdotes about the Bulls comes from Michael Wilbon, a precise observer of sports and athletes who concludes that Jordan is “addicted to competition”:

“I can remember this time in, I think, 1990 when Scottie decided to challenge Michael one day in practice,” Hodges said. “Michael kind of backed up for a half-second. Then he proceeded, literally, to score on Scottie at will. It was incredible. I mean, Scottie Pippen even then was one of the best players in the league and Michael just rained points on him. Scottie had to step back and say, ‘Slow up, man.’ ”

This made Jordan, by many accounts, kind of a jerk, but it also made him better at what he did than practically any athlete in sports—than practically anyone at what they do in my lifetime.

If you look at it this way, it doesn’t totally absolve Jordan of being a hypocrite… but maybe it does within a certain frame of reference. As a player, Jordan wanted to win money and power for himself and other players. As an owner, he wants to win for himself and other owners. If you look at it one way, his behavior has completely changed; if you look at it the other way, it’s entirely consistent.

And those multiple frames of reference are a broader economic and ethical issue, particularly now that there’s more tension (compared to the recent past, if not the medium past) between labor, management, and the electorate. It’s everywhere: in this week’s Ohio vote, between Mayor Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers Union, between Boeing and the NLRB. And Jordan is actually a great example, as a worker who moved up to management. (Nor is it just labor: the debate over taxation at local, state, and national levels is another interaction of economic actors.)

The question facing Jordan, and anyone who makes that switch, is what determines the kind of economic actor he becomes:

* If it’s loyalty to his past and to the employees who make the league profitable, he’s in error.

* If it’s the maximization of his welfare, he’s doing the right thing.

* Unless, of course, he and the other owners draw too hard a line, tank the season, and end up out of a lot of money. But that’s a whole ‘nother decision tree.

This might seem like I’m making a game preposterously arcane, but it’s one of the central controversies in modern economics, particularly in the days of recession and Occupy Wall Street. Well, as a side note, I’d contend that: It’s sports! They’re important! For instance, here’s why Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Lucas ended up at the University of Chicago:

Growing up in the Seattle area, Mr. Lucas recalls a road trip he took as a youngster that terminated in Chicago, a city with two baseball teams! Chicago, in his mind, became “the big city,” a gateway to a wider world. That, and a scholarship, is how he would end up spending most of his career at the University of Chicago.

Irrational actor or welfare maximizer? You be the judge.

Anyway, economist Amartya Sen explained the dilemma in his 1977 paper “Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory” (PDF):

It also helps in analyzing the development of behavior involving committment in situations characterized by games such as the Prisoners’ Dilemma. This game is often treated, with some justice, as the classic case of failure of individualistic rationality. There are two players and each has two strategies, which we may call selfish and unselfish to make it easy to remember without my having to go into much detail. Each player is better off personally by playing the selfish strategy no matter what the other does, but both are better off if both choose the unselfish rather than the selfish strategy. It is individually optimal to do the selfish thing…. But this combination of selfish strategies, which results from self-seeking by both, produces an outcome that is worse for both….

Some people find it puzzling that individual self-seeking by each should produce an inferior outcome for all, but this, of course, is a well-known conflict, and has been discussed in general terms for a very long time. Indeed, it was the basis of Rousseau’s famous distinction between the “general will” and the “will of all.” But the puzzle from the point of view of rational behavior lies in the fact that in actual situations people often do not follow the selfish strategy….

In interpreting these experimental results, the game theorist is tempted to put it down to the lack of intelligence of the players: “Evidently the run-of-the-mill players are not strategically sophisticated enough to have figured out that strategy DD [the selfish strategy] is the only rationally defensible strategy, and this intellectual short-coming saves them from losing.” A more fruitful approach may lie in permitting the possibility that the person is more sophisticated than the theory allows and that he has asked himself what type of preference he would like the other player to have, and on somewhat Kantian grounds has considered the case for himself having those preferences, or behaving as if he had them.

Or as Alan Wolfe put it in his 1991 book Whose Keeper? Social Science and Moral Obligation:

Suppose, for example, that a Chicago school theorist were invited to play in this [prisoners’-dilemma] tournament. Would his submission, in accord with the theories of the school, base each move on the logic of self-interest? If so, would it fare well? It turns out that one of those who responded to Axelrod’s initial invitation was Gordon Tullock, who, while not at Chicago, is a fairly extreme exponent of the idea that rational self-interest can explain noneconomic behavior. Tullock did in fact submit a strategy based on optimising self-interest: it finished next to last, barely beating out random responses.

Wolfe concludes that a better strategic decision is this:

“I can deny the reality of my opponent and act as if my motives were the only ones that mattered, but if I do that, my freedom is reduced because he will act in the same way. If I instead recognize the reality of my interdependence as the defining situation for my action, I can increase my freedom, but only by considering the point of view of others in making my decisions.”

In other words, maximizing self-interest by… not maximizing self-interest. At Rortybomb, Mike Konczal discusses an example of how this applies to taxation, and how convincing the wealthy that “a smaller slice of a bigger pie still means more pie” runs into the problem of maximizing self-interest. It’s remarkable how much the maximization of self-interest has become an assumption about the business world, thanks in no small part to my alma mater. Just for example, here’s an essay about why Jordan’s doing what he’s doing:

I might add that altering one’s position for maximum profit is not so much hypocrisy as it is a basic tenet of the cutthroat corporate world.

Ironically, Jordan found himself on Sen’s Kantian grounds in the past, not in the boardroom but on the court, when the Bulls were trying to figure out how to win a NBA championship with the greatest player in basketball history. It’s harder than it looks:

He is the reigning Most Valuable Player of the National Basketball Association, winning the award last summer for a season in which he became the first person to lead the league in both steals and points scored. He stands out as the most arresting and, not coincidentally, the most marketable player in the sport. He outscores his closest competitor by more than five points a game—500 points over the course of a season. He is, by himself, a one-man team, clearly deserving of the MVP award; but in a league that is evolving toward deeper, more balanced play, he is something of an oddity—almost an albatross. How can a player so good treat others as equals? How can a player so accomplished be simply a member of a team?

For Jordan, there is another question equally important: How can he win an NBA championship if he isn’t?

Or as Stacey King and John Paxson told Bryan Smith in his oral history of the 1991 Bulls:

KING: The main thing that really turned that team around was when our superstar player bought into it. When Michael Jordan finally conformed and said, “You know what? I’m not going to be able to beat the Pistons by myself. I’m not going to be able to win a championship by myself. I’ve got to have [my teammates] with me.”

PAXSON: We always had some dynamics of Scottie trying to find his way a little bit with Michael being there, and Horace [starting forward Horace Grant] wanting to do his thing a little bit, too.

Phil Jackson put it more crudely:

[Jerry] REINSDORF: The score, I believe, was 93–93, give or take a point. Phil calls a time-out, and he looks at Michael and he says, “Michael, who’s open?” Michael gives him a blank stare. He puts his hands on Michael’s shoulders and he says, “Michael, who’s open?” Michael says, “Paxson.” Phil says, “Get him the fucking ball.” Paxson scores 10 points after that, and we win going away.

[Sam] SMITH: It was the lesson from when Phil took over—in effect, that you can’t win it by yourself. You’ve got to depend on the group. Now we’ve come full circle. Michael has bought in, and Phil’s theories have been proved: that if you trust the group, you’ll have greater success, and you’ll be viewed as greater. From that point, Michael was viewed as the greatest player in the league.

But anyone who’s ever played sports knows there’s no “I” in team; in the economic world, it’s a lot more divisive.


Photograph: Charles Cherney/Chicago Tribune


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