Me dialing 911: hello 911, I’d like to report the mistreatment of a GOAT.
911 operator: strangely specific, but can you elaborate
Me: why yes, I’d be glad to elaborate, where do I even begin…
The Last Dance
The Last Dance‘s 10th and final episode of the ESPN Films documentary aired this past Sunday night. That served as the closure of the most highly anticipated sports documentary of my lifetime (and probably ever). Similar to a good book, or an enthralling TV series finale, the documentary itself left me feeling satisfied. Mighty impressive how they pulled off completing the final episodes remotely amid a global pandemic. However, as I came to the realization that this incredible 5-week experience was actually over, I became flooding with feelings of sadness. I came to terms that I should be glad that ESPN and the NBA committed so many resources to document and present to the public their work on how entertaining and dominant Michael Jordan and particularly the ’98 Bulls were.
Calling All GOATs…
Given what we already know, Jordan’s the GOAT of the NBA (sorry LeBron stans). But what about those other GOATs out there? What will their ESPN documentaries look like down the road? Major topic on twitter in the last few days. Nothing compares fairly to MJ’s reign in the world of sports, with the way he put the NBA on the global radar. Is any other American athlete particularly close to his world-beating mentality? The Boston sports fan bias in me tells me Tom Brady is the closest thing I’ve ever seen. Gretzky has his own GOAT status cemented in hockey no doubt. But I’d be doing the world a disservice if I tried to blog about hockey. So, for now, I’d like to focus on the comparison of legacies between TB12 and MJ (as dictated by their respective leagues).
One thing that stuck out to me in revisiting Jordan’s era with the Bulls. (I’m not counting the Wizards stuff, it was like Bob Dylan coming back for a reunion tour many years too late.) How the NBA (via the late commissioner David Stern) treated Jordan with such respect. As a result, fans across the NBA embraced Michael and absolutely adored him. Why would this stick out to me? Perhaps because we just lived through the NFL’s witch-hunt with the Patriots, Bill Belichick, and their league’s GOAT, Tom Brady (see photo evidence below).
The NBA and MJ:
Michael Jordan was the face of the NBA for years and elevated the game of basketball onto a global scale. He became an international icon during his briefer than you’d think basketball career. How did he do so? In part from his success. That success stemmed from his addiction to compete and be the best, as well as a tenacity to push teammates to their limits. How else? The NBA allowed him to become that global icon!
Don’t get it twisted, it was almost certainly all about the revenue. The league had just come out of the 1970s’ doldrums and felt a resurgence of interest with the Bird-Magic rivalry. Parlaying off that momentum, emerged an even bigger star in Michael Jordan. MJ was able to boost interest in the NBA on a global level, especially following the Dream Team’s 1992 Olympics run. By being the face of the league at its’ peak, MJ was a gold mine for the NBA financially. You have clips of David Stern handing over the MVP trophy to Michael, and THANKING HIM. The commissioner thanking the player while giving him the highest award possible for a season of play. If that’s not telling enough as to how much MJ meant to the NBA and Stern, then I’m not sure what is.
Those with a full (or near full) recollection of Jordan’s career confirmed with me that the average NBA fan was rooting for Jordan. Sure you had outliers along the way. Clearly when the Jazz made the finals against the Bulls, those fans are obviously rooting for Stockton and Malone. Don’t get me wrong, opposing teams and fans wanted to beat him, but when they didn’t (time and time again), they couldn’t help but respect the hell out of him. Generally speaking, the league and world LOVED Michael.
As a Celtics fan, I know Boston and LA fans coming out of the Magic/Bird era were a bit more resistant. To be fair, they each just experienced a decade of their own respective legends making NBA history. Recency bias was definitely a factor, especially for a fanbase like the Celtics, holding onto the glory days. But finally, by Jordan’s ’98 season, most if not all (of reasonable people) had come to accept that MJ was without question the GOAT. As a stubborn youth, I myself sort of retroactively went through a similar denial.*
*At a young age, for a brief period of time, I actually ascertained that Larry Bird was the GOAT. Bonkers, isn’t it? But eventually, when I finally gained some common sense, I caved to reality.
Regardless, the NBA loved and needed MJ, and we all knew it. Following the 1995 expansion (Raptors and Grizzlies), the league had gained 6 new franchises in the last 7 years (Hornets, Heat, T-Wolves, Magic). As a result, the league’s talent had been significantly watered down. If you watch some clips of bad teams during this era, you’ll see why. MJ’s planet-sized fame and ability to win was the answer to the problems here. His ability to draw leaguewide interest, and pull in fans from these new cities had to be immeasurably valuable at a time when the league could have been at it’s weakest. Jordan came back from baseball and was there for the league when the league needed him most. But in some ways, I think he needed the NBA just as much.
The NFL (Roger Goodell) vs. Tom Brady (& the Patriots):
I’m likely preaching to the choir, but the NFL has notoriously come after Belichick & Brady without ample evidence on several occasions. ESPN was a willing accomplice to the NFL’s unfair antics and outright mistreatment of Brady and the Patriots. The NFL waged a war on the Patriots, notably with Spygate and Deflategate. The fact that those terms didn’t autocorrect or populate as misspelled says it all. While no one wants to rehash the details and unfairness of the NFL’s reactions to infractions that to the former, they were totally overblown. In the case of the latter, the evidence lacks for any type of repercussions against Brady. But alas, the league does what it wants, when it wants, and when it’s against the Patriots, no one else seems to mind.*
*It’s like a professor being upset with a student getting all A’s in a class, outperforming the masses by a mile. All of a sudden, during a group project, the professor blindly accuses the star student of plagiarism. Unfair? Yes. Do any of the other jealous students come out of the woodwork to defend the student at the top of the class? I bet not. Want to imagine the only thing that could make it worse? The school newspaper co-conspires with the professor to cover the accusation, but only from the perspective of the professor.
The NFL’s terribly effective co-conspirator in this scenario? ESPN. Not only did ESPN control the narrative amid the Patriots’ controversies but they willingly villainized Brady/Belichick for ratings. Who cares? Well, maybe you should!
The Patriots, the NFL’s Self-Forged Villain:
The NFL’s perpetual public vilification of Tom Brady may have initially seemed like a savvy move to boost ratings. The plan seems to have been to portray Brady and the Patriots as villains, rallying fans to root against them. Everybody can rally together and root against a hate-able villain! But it’s tough when that ‘villain’ won’t stop winning. Maybe it worked for a while, in 2010 or so. Back when Brady’s status as GOAT was still in question to fools claiming Montana was still the best ever. But following the 28-3 Superbowl comeback against the Falcons, Brady’s magnum opus of a football moment, to the general consensus, Brady cemented himself the GOAT.
Despite that moment, the damage to his marketability as a global icon for the sport however, was already done. In portraying Brady as the league’s villain, the NFL ultimately shot themselves in the foot. They elected to work with ESPN to beat down their GOAT’s reputation, rather than building him up. There’s a reason the typical ‘villains’ of sport are great athletes, but not the best to ever play the game. An opportunity to grow the game means more than a short-sighted narrative to create a rivalry between the league and a dominant team.
Mistakes were made? Roger That.
Perhaps Goodell didn’t realize Brady had an actual shot at becoming the GOAT. If so, Goodell severely underestimated Brady. But it would make sense if he saw Brady as more of an equivalent to Derek Jeter of the Yankees dynasty. A key cog to one of the greatest sports dynasties sure, but the best to ever play? No, not even close. (This hypothetical take comparing Brady to Jeter is obviously dead wrong, by the way. Just trying to make some semblance of a sense of Goodell’s egregious actions.)
It’s clear to me that the NFL’s mistreatment of Brady (and the Patriots) was a severe miscalculation by Roger Goodell. The immortal glory and constant praise bestowed unto Jordan and the Bulls in ‘The Last Dance’ won’t be anywhere close to what we see for Brady and the Patriots’ iteration of a documentary. Villanizing the greatest football player of this generation very well may have set back the NFL 15-20 years in terms of developing the sort of global image the NBA was able to take hold of. For Goodell’s sake, he better hope Patrick Mahomes becomes the best QB for the next 15-20 years with a resume that aligns with Brady. No promises he won’t screw it up even in the unlikely event that type of Mahomes scenario happens.
Tom Brady Deserved Better:
As a Patriots fan watching ‘The Last Dance’, it feels clear to me that Brady is right with MJ as a certifiable GOAT. As a result, Brady should UNDOUBTEDLY be embraced by the fans of the rest of the league with an adoration similar to what Michael Jordan received. But alas, they have not, and will not. It’s too late now. Simply put, the way they handled those ‘controversies’ ended up defaming the best player in their sport’s history. To think that after seeing firsthand how dominant Tom Brady was/is, the rest of the league’s fans might forever resent him? That’s a damn shame.
The NFL is a well-oiled machine, and (believe it or not) doing just fine without my input. However, I hope there’s an alternate timeline out there where the NFL & Roger Goodell embraced Tom Brady as the GOAT. If they were to have embraced and marketed Brady like the NBA did Jordan, I believe the NFL would have flourished on a global scale. There are probably already like 4 teams in Europe in that alternate universe. The ‘AFC Far-East’ might even be the best division in football in that parallel version of this reality!
P.S. If anyone develops the ability to switch between timelines and can confirm, please let me know. My Twitter DMs are open.
-Mike Gilligan (@BigGilli, and @SmallStateTakes Podcast) – https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/small-state-big-takes/id1432138166
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Featured image courtesy of the NFL / Getty Images