Dennis Rodman checked into an alcohol rehab center this past week, a source close to the former National Basketball Association star told CNN. The move caps off another bizarre North Korea trip in which Rodman played basketball for North Korea’s murderous ruler, Kim Jong-un, questioned whether imprisoned American pastor Kenneth Bae deserved his 15-year sentence in North Korea and, after apologizing for those remarks, headed off to go skiing in a North Korean resort.
Just about every commentator condemned Rodman’s North Korea spectacle, although Rodman himself and some of the former NBA stars who he brought to Pyongyang defended his “sporting diplomacy.” His agent Darren Prince defended the trip. “People forget Dennis is just an entertainer and retired NBA star… The fact remains that a basketball game was played in North Korea live in front of 14,000 people and hundreds of millions around the world viewed clips of the game.”
Make no mistake: Rodman’s North Korea forays do not advance diplomacy; they retard it. They legitimize a barbaric regime, give it free press and propaganda points, and do nothing to break down barriers or create understandings. But, while many commentators are quick to condemn Rodman, they never question why Rodman is wrong but they assume so many other episodes of sporting diplomacy to be right. The State Department celebrates, for example, football friendlies and wrestling exhibitions with Iran and Cuba, but never explains why those events are any different than what Rodman does in Pyongyang.
Many diplomats point to the famous Ping-Pong exhibition with China to justify almost all sporting diplomacy, but there was context to that episode, and it was carefully choreographed by both sides against the backdrop of simultaneous initiatives. As Kissinger notes in his 1979 book White House Years, that iconic moment did not initiate relations but followed months of secret diplomacy. To credit “ping pong diplomacy” with the China breakthrough puts the cart before the horse.
Rodman was wrong. His antics in North Korea were clownish and an embarrassment to the United States. How sad it is, then, that they are not too different in result from much of the other sporting diplomacy which the State Department actually encourages. There is a time and a place for athletic exchanges, but seldom do they accomplish what American diplomats claim. Attending a soccer match might be fun, but it does not resolve the threat posed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, any more than Rodman reduces the menace posed by the dear leader.