Thanks to the hit Netflix documentary The Last Dance, there is a wave of nostalgia for the 1990’s Chicago Bulls, one of the most dominant teams in the history of basketball. At the centre of this is Dennis Rodman, the enigmatic power forward for the Bulls between 1995 – 1998.
The series was watched by 23.8 million households during the first month of its release. Since then, the cult of Rodman’s personality has re-entered popular culture. As a high profile athlete, he challenged the image of the hyper-masculine sportsman.
He did so in a variety of ways; he frequented gay bars, covered his body in piercings and tattoos and once dyed a red AIDS ribbon in his hair for the 1995 playoffs. This was when the social stigma surrounding HIV was bigger than ever, especially in overtly-macho NBA locker rooms.
However, there is an irony in the media’s sudden glorification of Rodman’s stigma-shattering style. Articles like those recently featured in Esquire and G.Q, fail to acknowledge the vitriolic abuse Rodman had to endure in response to his fashion choices in the ’90s.
“Unlike the Material Girl, this much-tattooed, much-pierced, overdyed basketball star is style clueless, off the court or on, in drag or out.”Baltimore Sun, 1996
Rodman has always seen himself as an essential figure to the gay community. In his 1996 autobiography Bad As I Wanna Be he said, “I think I’ve done more to reconfigure them than any other professional athlete.”
During his playing days, Rodman was one of the biggest pioneers for LGBTQ+ athletes, despite not being gay himself. He tried to use his platform as a high profile sportsman to make the NBA’s culture more open and accepting of gay athletes. To this day, the NBA still has no openly gay players, if that is to change then more players need to follow in Rodman’s footsteps, the responsibility can’t rest on the shoulders of gay players alone, to come out in a sport that still oppresses them.
Most major sports teams have a stranglehold on their key assets, 24 hours a day. Rodman was different though, as soon as he stepped off the court, he no longer represented his team, he was his own man.
“Rodman doesn’t give a flying halter top what the N.B.A. thinks of him.”Sports Illustrated , 1995
Compare this to Rodman’s teammate Michael Jordan. During a 1990 Senate race in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina, Jordan refused to endorse Democrat Harvey Gantt, an African American. He was running against Republican Jesse Helms, a disreputable racist. Jordan simply said, “Republicans buy sneakers, too”, to explain away his refusal to endorse Gantt. It’s hard to imagine Rodman taking the same approach.
To promote his autobiography in 1996, Rodman attended a book signing wearing a custom made wedding dress. He did so, in order to marry himself and publicly proclaim his bisexuality. The outfit was gender-bending, but that had nothing to do with Rodman identifying as bisexual. This was a publicity stunt, one that propelled his book to number one in the New York Times bestseller list a week later.
In October 1993, while grieving a failed marriage and the loss of his beloved coach Chuck Daly, police found Rodman asleep in his car with a suicide note and a loaded rifle in a parking lot outside the Pistons’ arena (the team he was playing for at the time). Instead of killing himself, Rodman wrote in his autobiography that he, “Killed the Dennis Rodman that had tried to conform to what everybody wanted him to be.”
From this moment, Rodman’s career transcended basketball, he became just as famous for his antics off the court as he was for his prowess on it.
Rodman’s individuality is something that should be celebrated, however, to glorify the law-defying Rodman could set a dangerous precedent. In this new wave of Rodman fandom, reports of his multiple arrests for domestic violence, including one incident in 2008 to which he pleaded guilty are nowhere to be seen. Unlike its list of gay players, the NBA’s tally of players charged with domestic violence is aplenty. In this case, Rodman has done nothing to reconfigure the idea of the hyper-aggressive male athlete. His past transgressions should not be ignored, they should be used as an example to the NBA, to improve human decency within its ranks.
It’s hard to celebrate Rodman the man, in light of his crimes. At the best of times, he is a breath of fresh air, an artist trapped in the body of an elite level athlete. In the worst of times, he is destructive and violent towards women.
Should we celebrate a man like that?
Without Rodman, we might not have had Colin Kaepernick, Frank Ocean and Billy Porter to name a few. He paved the way for so many athletes and artists to express themselves beyond their industries, and to use their profile for the greater good.
However, to give sports stars like Rodman a free pass for domestic violence undoes all the work he did to challenge toxic masculinity in popular sports. We should acknowledge Rodman for who he is, good and bad, to motivate real change in the NBA and beyond.
- Illustration by Polina Kalentsits