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Monday, February 5, 2018

February 5, 2018: Famous Boy Scouts: Michael Jordan and Hank Aaron

[On February 8th, 1910, Chicago publisher William D. Boyce incorporated the Boys Scouts of America, a US version of the international Scouting organization. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Boyce and a handful of other figures connected to the Boy Scouts, leading up to a weekend post on the Scouts in the 21st century.]
On some telling differences and a key similarity between two iconic athletes.
Long before the championships and the commercials and the animated film, even before he was famously cut from his high school’s varsity baskeball team, Michael Jordan was a Boy Scout during the 1970s in his childhood hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina. Some three decades earlier, long before his own legendary, record-setting baseball career, Hank Aaron likewise took part in scouting during his own late 1930s and ‘40s childhood in Mobile, Alabama, calling the experience “one of the greatest thrills” of his young life. Both of those hyperlinked stories also connect the young men’s individual scouting experiences to their parents’ perspectives and situations, but in very different ways that reflect the distinct time periods and worlds: Jordan’s mom Deloris highlights his scouting as one of many examples of she and her husband’s desire to give their children everything, remarking that “PTA, Boy Scouts, band—our kids were our life”; whereas Aaron notes that he had to stop scouting when his father could not afford to buy him a pair of the required, regulation long pants. North Carolina in the 1970s was far from an ideal place for an African American family, but it’s fair to say that Alabama in the 1940s was significantly worse still.
Those distinct childhood worlds might help explain other differences in the two men’s careers and perspectives. Much (perhaps too much) is made of Jordan’s high school varsity setback, but in truth his career was on a fast-track to professional success from a very early point: he was a McDonald’s All-American his last year in high school; received a scholarship to play at one of the country’s great college programs (North Carolina); and left after his junior year to enter the 1984 NBA draft, where he was selected third overall. Aaron was at least as talented as a young athlete (receiving a professional tryout with Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers at the age of 15), but came of age in an era when segregation was still the norm; his professional career began with multiple seasons in the Negro Leagues before he signed with the Boston Braves in 1952. And it seems likely to me that these distinct career paths, and in particular Aaron’s seemingly much more direct personal and professional experiences of the effects of discrimination and racism, have led to the two men’s widely varied willingness to engage with social and political issues: Jordan famously justified his political neutrality by noting that Republicans buy sneakers too; while Aaron has long been a vocal participant and frequent activist in social and political debates over sports, race, and many related issues.
Yet at the same time, I would argue that the two men’s post-playing professional careers have reflected a fundamentally similar desire to continue contributing to the sports they love. Before his somewhat ill-fated comeback with the Washington Wizards from 2001-3, Jordan had already begun such a second act, working as President of Basketball Operations for the Wizards; although he was not able to return to that position after his final 2003 retirement from playing, he has gone on to become first a minority and now a majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats (making him the only African-American majority owner of an NBA team). Aaron’s second act has been in many ways very similar, with numerous front-office jobs with the Atlanta Braves including director of player development and senior vice president (making him one of the first African Americans in baseball upper management); he has also spearheaded efforts to bring more minorities into baseball at every level, such as his Hank Aaron Rookie League Program. While of course these professional arcs might reflect men unable to turn off their competitive sides altogether, I would nonetheless emphasize instead two legends who hope that their legacies in their respective sports will go beyond simply their Hall of Fame careers and statistics. A focus on communal impact that might have been influenced at least a bit by their scouting starting points.
Next Scouts tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Scouting histories or stories you’d share?

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