Michael Jordan vs LeBron James: a debate about debates

The nature of the debate these days can be narrowed down to a siloed soundbyte or a GIF gone viral. How do we bring back balanced debates?

If there’s one thing you can take away from any of the now-ancient Star Wars prequels, it’s a line from the final battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi and a corrupted Anakin Skywalker. The future Darth Vader delivers the “you’re with me or against me” ultimatum to Obi-Wan, who responds with “only a Sith speaks in absolutes”.

It’s never a good sign when your opening pop-culture reference is from a reviled trilogy – but it’s the first thing I think of whenever I’m drawn into or witness a “debate” online or on TV. Because when it comes to debating, we’re all Siths nowadays. You’re either with me, or against me. There’s no middle ground; it’s gone the way of Luke Skywalker’s hand in The Empire Strikes Back (is that better?).

There is no more prevalent example of this than recently, with the now-incessant debate about who is basketball’s GOAT (Greatest Of All Time): Michael Jordan or LeBron James. His Airness or The King.

You’re either a Jordan Stan or a LeBron Homer – and really, this is a debate that should probably fall into a grey area given that we’re comparing players from two different eras in a game which has changed drastically in that time. But it doesn’t. If football is your bag, I hear the debate of whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is the GOAT or not is just as fierce and divisive.

Normally, this would be fine. You can take a position on the debate and no-one could blame you… except that people are entering the debate and citing Trumpian-level alternative facts or completely leaving aside facts that counteract their point – all while remaining adamant their side is infallible.

So it’s high time we had a debate about… debates.

(For what it’s worth, I’m a Jordan fanboy and it’s going to be a tough sell trying to convert me to the side in which LeBron is atop the mountain, but I’m certainly open to it. I’m GOAT agnostic, let’s put it that way. So email me with something you think puts LeBron on top – and I’ll deliver a counterpoint because I can almost guarantee there is one. But I digress.)

You’ve no doubt run into the term “social media bubble” which suggests that online platforms allow us to hew to our leaning much easier and find stats and facts that suit our narrative. Rarely do we have to leave our side of the debate, be it political, economic, identity-based or even sports-related. We can stay in the comfort of the bubble with like-minded individuals who serve to applaud our stances rather than challenge them.

This is the beauty of these bubbles. They aren’t concentric circles or a VENN diagram. There’s no common starting point, and there is certainly no grey area.

But enough has been said about social media and how it has divided opinions, and we don’t need to re-litigate it any further if only to say that the bubble is simply the wall to reason.

What’s really killing debate these days is the content.

Short bites. Talking TV heads or, in some cases, screaming TV heads. Podcasts which don’t need to meet editorial standards. Hot “takes”. Screen grabs. GIFs.

It’s the content that is filling the bubbles to bursting point, and it’s making those within them angrier or, at the very least, more hardened in their stance. There are no guidelines to adhere to when it comes to content, but to many it’s as real as anything else on the internet – you can see it, after all – and if it’s real, it’s a fact.

Case in point – here’s a GIF put together of Jordan being ‘defended’ by Brent Price of the then-Washington Bullets:

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Jordan haters show this as evidence that the game was easier to play back then, and LeBron plays harder defences more regularly. Jordan believers say this shows how easy he made the game look.

The grey area would consist of something along the lines of “this lasted two seconds and Price is among the worst defenders of all time, so this should be stricken from the record”. But nope, it’s either the first or second point. The problem is that both sides believe they’re as right as the other.

The GIF is bereft of context or statistics, yet it’s all the evidence anyone needs these days. And that’s where we are with debates. Two seconds is all we need for the Siths to come out in force and attack the other side; it’s like in Braveheart when both sides are charging at each other, only each is armed with a screenshot or an online rant.

It’s a shame, because content is awesome. But put it in the wrong hands, and those hands suddenly start thinking they’re the right hands. One only has to look at how the current Leader of the Free World got elected to see what the wrong hands can do when fully armed. His predecessor has come out since then, warning that we’re living in a media bubble and operating in “completely different information universes”.

In a less consequential example, it’s exactly what’s happening in the current GOAT debates.

I saw one clip that has been circulated this week that perfectly summed up the state of the current debate, with a Fox Sports presenter in the US basically claiming we’re all lying about what Michael Jordan actually did early in his career… and in the sweetest of ironies, that same presenter was caught flat-out lying about LeBron’s achievements this week. Another claimed that defences back then weren’t that good.

Note that each of these pieces are more than a year old. But the bubble keeps circulating them. And as someone who grew up watching Jordan, these arguments are clearly facile and, it’s worth noting, without a counterpoint (if you want the counterpoints, send me an email).

But that’s where we are today. That’s the nature of the debate these days; it can be narrowed down to a siloed soundbyte or a GIF gone viral.

It shouldn’t have to be this way. We should be able to have discussions rather than be delivered directives from Siths on the other side of the debate. Ultimately, I want to be able to enjoy LeBron scoring 40 points six times in this year’s playoffs without having to point out that Jordan averaged a record 41 per game in the NBA Finals.

LeBron is phenomenal, but can I just appreciate his greatness without having to defend the true GOAT’s honour at the same time?

By Cameron Wells, Senior Consultant, Watterson

25.05.2018