Basketball Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman has not spent his retirement with the sort of venerable remove we often like to see from past NBA greats. At various times since his final game in 2000, Rodman has fallen behind on child support payments, coached a topless women's basketball team, and, uh, released a children's book. In various ways, he seems addicted to attention and appears to need serious help.
Nevertheless, this February Rodman took part in an unofficial "diplomatic mission" to North Korea organized by Vice Media for their HBO television series (watch a clip here). On that trip, Rodman witnessed a basketball game between North Korean players and several Harlem Globetrotters, hobnobbed with dictator Kim Jong-un, and declared that he had a "friend for life." It was arguably the friendliest interaction between an American national and North Korea in several decades.
For his efforts, Rodman believes he deserves serious consideration for the Nobel Peace Prize. From Franz Lidz for the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated:
Early on this warm, blustery afternoon outside the Jet Blue baggage claim at JFK, the Worm is holding forth — to his limo driver, to anyone who will listen, to the wind — on his foray into geopolitics. “Before I landed in Pyongyang, I didn’t know Kim Jong-un from Lil’ Kim,” he says. “I didn’t know what country he ruled or what went on in the country he ruled.”
“Fact is, he hasn’t bombed anywhere he’s threatened to yet. Not South Korea, not Hawaii, not … whatever. People say he’s the worst guy in the world. All I know is Kim told me he doesn’t want to go to war with America. His whole deal is to talk basketball with Obama. Unfortunately, Obama doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. I ask, Mr. President, what’s the harm in a simple phone call? This is a new age, man. Come on, Obama, reach out to Kim and be his friend.”
Rodman plans to return to North Korea in August. “I’m just gonna chill, play some basketball and maybe go on vacation with Kim and his family,” Rodman says. “I’ve called on the Supreme Leader to do me a solid by releasing Kenneth Bae.” The Korean-American missionary was recently sentenced to 15 years of hard labor on charges that he tried to topple the North Korean regime. He’d organized tours into the isolated state.
“My mission is to break the ice between hostile countries,” Rodman says. “Why it’s been left to me to smooth things over, I don’t know. Dennis Rodman, of all people. Keeping us safe is really not my job; it’s the black guy’s [Obama's] job. But I’ll tell you this: If I don’t finish in the top three for the next Nobel Peace Prize, something’s seriously wrong.”
Oh boy, where to start? While the list of Nobel Peace Price winners is full of questionable choices, the recipients have generally accomplished something to advance the cause of understanding throughout the world. Aside from asking for "a solid," Rodman has only really served to give the North Korean regime something the world already knew it wanted: access to at least one famous basketball player.
It is true that Kim Jong-un's love of basketball does provide some common ground between North Korean and American leaders, but putting the disagreement between the countries in terms of cultural misunderstanding is at best an oversimplification of the problem and at worst a willful obfuscation of the facts. The American government's distaste for diplomacy with North Korea is not founded on the belief that they dislike the United States, but that they are one of the worst human rights abusers in the world. The struggle between the nations goes much deeper than an unwillingness to be friends.
What I'm saying, basically, is that a Nobel Peace Price finalist should understand the conflict he's working on at least this deep a level. Perhaps the committee will feel differently.