Sports Useful Idiocy

Lifestyles of the Deeply Stupid, Pyongyang Edition (or, Dennis Rodman, the accidental activist)

Despite the loss of his sponsor, Dennis Rodman is back in Pyongyang with several other NBA has-beens for what Rodman calls a “birthday present” basketball exhibition game for Kim Jong Un. Rodman appears to be taking his talking points directly from KCNA:

“The marshal is actually trying to change this country in a great way,” Rodman said of Kim, using the leader’s official title. “I think that people thought that this was a joke, and Dennis Rodman is just doing this because fame and fortune.” Instead, he said, he sees the game as a “birthday present” for Kim and his country. “Just to even have us here, it’s an awesome feeling. I want these guys here to show the world, and speak about North Korea in a great light,” he said. “I hope people will have a different view about North Korea.” [AP, Eric Talmadge]

Separately, as he was departing from Beijing, Rodman said this:

“It’s about trying to connect two countries together in the world, to let people know that: Do you know what? Not every country in the world is that bad, especially North Korea,” Rodman told The Associated Press in an interview outside his hotel before heading to the Beijing airport with the team. “People say so many negative things about North Korea. And I want people in the world to see it’s not that bad.” [Fox News / AP]

I think Anderson Cooper said it best when he called Rodman “deeply stupid.”

When a reporter from Sky News suggested to Rodman that he had a responsibility to raise the issue of human rights as the only American with such access to the  North Korea leader, Rodman responded “That’s not my job. The only thing I am doing right now, I am only doing one thing: this game is for his birthday. It’s for his birthday. “And I hope that if this opens doors and we can actually talk about certain things, then we can do certain things, but I am not going to sit there and go in and say ‘Hey guy, you’re doing the wrong thing.’” “That’s not the right thing to do. He’s my friend first. He’s my friend. I don’t give a (expletive). I tell the world: he’s my (expletive) friend, I love him.”


When asked if he was aware of the estimated 200,000 political prisoners in North Korea, Rodman answered “Are you aware that lots of people in America is locked up like that too?”   [Fox News / AP]

Is that so, Dennis? Locked up like this? In a way, Rodman is an archetype of visitors to North Korea. The more contact he has with the place, the less he seems to know about it.

Rodman denies he’s doing this for the money, of course. He claims that “proceeds from the game would go to a charity for the deaf in North Korea,” which raises the same questions we’ve been debating since Medicins Sans Frontieres left North Korea 20 years ago over its inability to monitor the distribution of its aid. What Rodman didn’t deny, however, was what he’s making from endorsements and other downstream affects of being an attention whore. But there is growing evidence that Rodman is becoming toxic.

NBA Commissioner David Stern issued a statement Monday night. “The NBA is not involved with Mr. Rodman’s North Korea trip and would not participate or support such a venture without the approval of the U.S. State Department,” Stern said. “Although sports in many instances can be helpful in bridging cultural divides, this is not one of them.”

Jesse Jackson, who initially sent out two tweets supportive of Rodman, later deleted at least one of them.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center and the North Korean Freedom Coalition teamed up on Monday to hold a press conference to denounce Rodman’s visit. They were joined by one of the finest human beings on Capitol Hill today, New York Democrat Rep. Elliot Engel, who is the Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee:

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Suzanne Scholte, head of the North Korean Freedom Coalition, held a public event in New York Monday to urge a group of ex-NBA players to boycott an upcoming basketball game in Pyongyang. They were joined by two North Korean defectors in the event hosted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization.

Dennis Rodman and several other NBA old-timers are in the reclusive communist nation for a match against a North Korean team on Wednesday to mark the birthday of leader Kim Jong-un. They argue their move is part of “basketball diplomacy,” an expression apparently stemming from “ping pong diplomacy” between the U.S. and China in the early 1970s.

“That’s completely nonsense,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told Yonhap News Agency in a phone interview. He said, “We are not against using sports to try to produce a political breakthrough,” but a problem is the North’s intent. The communist regime is just exploiting the sport for propaganda in a bid to distract global attention from its political unrest and human rights abuses, said Cooper. He quoted Engel as saying that playing a basketball game for the North’s leader is like having lunch with Adolf Hitler.

Cooper said he is also in contact with the National Basketball Retired Players Association to issue a related statement.  [Yonhap, via here]

Whatever the impact on Rodman himself, his visit is doing Kim Jong Un much more harm than good. For years, the greatest disadvantage advocates for North Korean human rights faced wasn’t really disagreement, which is mostly confined to a lunatic fringe, it was simply a lack of attention to the issue. There was no George Clooney or Richard Gere drawing public attention to this issue. Now, in his own perverse way, Dennis Rodman has become our George Clooney.


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