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The Era of Basketball Diplomacy

Why Dennis Rodman's trip to North Korea was no fluke

Since retiring from professional basketball in 1998, Dennis Rodman has seemingly been engaged in a single, uninterrupted publicity stunt, the latest example of which is his current jaunt to Rome in hopes of meeting with the new Pope. Of course, that was preceded by another attempt to pose as an international statesman: his recent visit to North Korea, where the former Detroit Piston and Chicago Bull met with the country's dictator, Kim Jong Un. Yet lost in all the outrage and skepticism stirred up by that trip to Pyongyang was a simple, encouraging lesson: Dennis Rodman, former NBA star, could with minimal assistance get a meeting with the leader of the world’s most secretive, and problematic, rogue nation. He could even, if we trust his account, have an impact on international diplomacy

Yes, Rodman’s presence was most likely a function of the fame he acquired as one of the defining basketball players of his era, an overwhelming defender and rebounder with a penchant for dyed hair. But that's just the point. The fact that he got there (and got out) demonstrates that basketball is a remarkably effective form of international outreach.

Among America's current exports, basketball is particularly well-suited to win hearts and minds abroad. Both Barack Obama and Kim Jong Un are avid fans of the NBA, of course. But basketball's potential as a diplomatic tool extends beyond appealing to heads of state—particularly the endlessly marketable, highly stylized brand proffered by the NBA.

Basketball's global reputation has been trending precipitously upward ever since the 1992 Olympics, the first time that professionals were allowed to compete. Team USA, stacked with the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, and Larry Bird, ran away with the gold medal and exposed the entire the world to the sport, by way of some of the most exhilarating ball ever played. Before long, international NBA telecasts became increasingly common and the league itself started to see an influx of foreign-born players inspired by the Dream Team.

This development wasn't an accident, but a concerted strategy—one that continues to guide the NBA's long-term strategy. The league long ago realized that it has no hopes of catching the NFL at home, deciding instead to turn its sights to foreign markets. Games are now available in 50 languages; the league has 15 international offices, with a particularly robust presence in China. This past week, the league announced that eight teams would play preseason games abroad in 2013, giving fans in Istanbul, Manchester, Manila, Taiwan, and Brazil the chance to witness the product first-hand. Commissioner David Stern has openly discussed the possibility of expanding to Europe, as well as targeting India, a gargantuan potential fanbase. The NBA has also been remarkably adept at leveraging social media in international markets; nearly half of the league's Facebook friends are located outside of the United States.

Barring mass extinction, soccer will still be the global game for the foreseeable future; in terms of the sheer numbers of viewers, basketball still can't compete with soccer. But basketball’s global reach has opened up vast potential for further expansion. Meanwhile, the NFL may have already hit its ceiling internationally.

There's another reason that basketball has an advantage over football: As a cultural export, basketball enjoys the virtue of not having too close an association with crude American nationalism. (This is also another contrast with soccer, which has been used, at various times, as either a proxy for war or an excuse to postpone it.) Basketball, despite being a uniquely American product, exports something more complex than patriotism. For one, the NBA makes icons out of young African-American males, and has for some time also served as a window into hip-hop culture. While America remains mired in racial tension, and to some degree uncomfortable with the very world the NBA celebrates, other countries long to be in touch with it. On the global stage, the NBA is as American—and as desirable—as Coca-Cola and Levi’s.

Indeed, the NBA has ensured that basketball players have become exemplars of celebrity culture, larger-than-life figures with outsized personae and, the recent draconian labor agreement notwithstanding, salaries and endorsement deals that make many of them very, very rich. They perform on the court and off the court, where they are associated with shoes, clothing lines, and other products. They are increasingly defined by their ubiquity—a useful trait for any ambassador sent on a high-profile diplomatic mission.

So when professional basketball ventures onto the international stage, it does so not as shorthand for imperialism, but as an indicator of both American diversity and the slow, inclusive crawl of capitalism. Hence China, the proudest and most adversarial of world powers, is nearly as important a market for the NBA and related entities as the United States itself. As a diplomatic agent, America's professional basketball league is well-suited for the kind of gradual diplomatic thaw that, presumably, a situation like North Korea demands.

What ultimately marred Rodman's gambit was that he explicitly injected politics into his visit when the most valuable work might have been done through implication alone. He could easily have greased the wheels with Pyongyang by simply showing up, playing some ball, and helping counteract the prevailing ideas about Americans—maybe even for Kim Jong Un himself. Instead, Rodman was clearly proud of the ad hoc diplomacy he conducted with Un, relishing the opportunity to pose as an authority on all things geopolitical. He had discussed U.S.-North Korea relations with Kim and determined that there was, in fact, a way forward for the two countries. Commentators were correct to see Rodman's pose as a hopelessly naïve bid for peace—or a deeply cynical attempt to once again reset the clock on his fifteen minutes of post-retirement fame.

In a 1993 Nike campaign, Charles Barkley fiercely proclaimed “I am not a role model.” Barkley wasn’t condoning his own bad behavior, he was questioning those who would look to an athlete for guidance when, simply put, they weren’t qualified to serve as examples. It wasn’t in their training. That’s not to say that athletes can’t be any more than that, but to assume that of them is folly. Sometimes, mere celebrity has to be suffice.

Rodman would have done well to heed Barkley’s advice during his trip to Pyongyang; rather than open a door to North Korea, he may have inadvertently slammed it shut. Clearly, athletes shouldn't flatter themselves as statesmen. Still, the American public would do well to recognize that basketball players may be among the only ambassadors who can earn a dictator's undivided attention.

This article has been updated.