Dennis Rodman has always been a maverick. And while few thought they’d seen the last of him when he retired from professional basketball, even fewer could have predicted that the ostentatious athlete would be making headlines for his attempts at international “diplomacy” nearly 15 years later.
On the court, Rodman was known as “The Worm” and played an aggressive defense for several top-ranked US teams. Off the court, he was equally well known for his multi-hued hair, wild tattoos, and laundry list of wives and legal woes. After stints in acting and professional wrestling, the now 52-year-old Rodman has a new career: unofficial ambassador to North Korea and its young dictator Kim Jong Un, or – as Rodman put it this week – his “friend for life.”
Returning from a second trip to see Kim, Rodman held a press conference this week to dutifully convey Kim’s message to the world: Hey, North Korea isn’t so bad! Kim, Rodman insisted, is “a very good guy,” and, really, just wants to talk. One presumes Rodman’s state-managed tours of the North Korean countryside did not include the millions believed starving and living in forced poverty, or the gulags where multiple generations of a family are imprisoned for a single relative’s transgression.
While a few naïve hopefuls continue to view Rodman’s visits as positive, the growing feeling is this “basketball diplomacy” is at best entertaining and at worst embarrassing. As one late-night comedian put it, “Not since Sea Biscuit and Hitler has there been a more strange pairing of athlete and dictator.”
THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Dennis Rodman. US Secretary of State John Kerry need not fear for his position.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: There is a fine line between outrageous and oafish. Rodman’s antics have always pushed the envelope, and he has been rewarded with lots of attention. But there is something pathetic about this latest publicity grab: Rodman appears less a savvy envoy and more an aging ex-basketball player mesmerized by a young despot who flatters him and makes him feel important. “I’m not a joke,” Rodman insisted at the press conference, sitting next to a bust of his own head. “Take me seriously.” If only it were that easy, Dennis.