The Sports Spectacle, Michael Jordan, and Nike: Unholy Alliance?*
By Douglas Kellner
Jordan is widely acclaimed as the greatest athlete who ever lived. The
announcement of his retirement in January 1999 unleashed an unparalleled
hyperbole of adjectives describing his superlative athletic accomplishments.
Yet his continuing media presence and adulation after his retirement confirmed
that Jordan is one of the most popular and widely known sports icons throughout
the world. In China, the Beijing Morning Post ran a front paged article
titled "Flying Man Jordan is Coming Back to Earth" and in Bosnia
Jordan's statement declaring his retirement was the lead story on the evening
television news, pushing aside the war in Kosovo.
An icon of the global popular, Jordan is "a kind of new world
prince," in the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam,
who recently published a biography of the basketball legend (1999): "You
hear time and again about people being in Borneo or somewhere and coming across
a kid in a tattered Michael Jordan T-shirt. He's the most famous American in
acclaim and popularity result in part because he is a perfect embodiment of the
sports spectacle in which media culture uses high tech wizardry to magically
transform sports into a media extravaganza of the highest order. Images of
Jordan's windmill dunking, blazing baseline heroics, and flying through the air
to net a key shot thrilled sports spectators throughout the world, as did his
controlled fade-away jump shooting and uncanny ability to always bag the
decisive shot in more recent years. Moreover, Jordan provided the spectacle of
intense competition and the thrill of winning, perhaps the American
passion play. He led the Chicago Bulls to NBA championships during six of eight
seasons during which he played in the 1990s (the two seasons the Bulls failed
to win were during Jordan's quixotic retirement to try to become a baseball
star in 1993-1995), and became associated with the triumphs of winning as well
as deification from his prowess.
addition to being perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time, Jordan is
one of the most successfully managed idols and icons of media culture.
Parlaying his athletic triumphs into commercial product endorsements, Jordan
became the highest paid celebrity advertising figure ever, endorsing a
multitude of products for multimillion dollar fees, promoting his own line of
athletic shoes and cologne, and starring with Bugs Bunny in a popular movie Space
Jam (1996). Michael Jordan is thus a perfect icon for the
end-of-the-millennium American and global culture, combining extraordinary
athletic prowess, an unrivalled record of success and winning, high
entertainment value, and an ability to exploit his image into strikingly
impressive business success.
a commercial culture that blends celebrity, product, and image, it is only
natural that a sports shoe corporation like Nike -- as well as many other
corporations -- would purchase Jordan's star power to promote its products.
Accordingly, I wish to argue that the Michael Jordan/Nike connection calls
attention to the extent to which media spectacle is transforming sports into a
forum that sells the values, products, celebrities, and institutions of the
media and consumer society. The Jordan/Nike nexus calls attention to the sports
entertainment colossus that has become a major feature of media culture at
the end of the millennium. The Nike/Jordan alliance discloses the extent to
which contemporary society is constituted by image and spectacle and mediated
by the institutions of consumer culture. We are thus undergoing an increasing
commercialization and spectacle-ization of the world of which Michael Jordan
and Nike are a significant and highly revealing part. The following study will
thus use the Nike/Jordan nexus to uncover the central dynamics of contemporary
media and consumer culture and the implosion between sports, entertainment,
celebrity, and commerce in the contemporary era.
The Sports Spectacle
sports is one of the major spectacles of media culture. "Spectacle"
is a multifarious term developed by French Situationist Guy Debord that
"unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena"
(Debord 1970: #10). In one
sense, it refers to a media and consumer society, organized around the
consumption of images, commodities, and spectacles. Spectacles are those
phenomena of media culture that embody contemporary society's basic values,
serve to enculturate individuals into its way of life, and dramatize its
conflicts and modes of conflict resolution. They include media extravaganzas,
sports events, political happenings, and those attention-grabbing occurrences
that we call news -- a phenomenon that itself has been subjected to the logic
of spectacle and tabloidization in the era of the O.J. Simpson trials
(1994-1996), the death of Princess Diana, and the Bill Clinton sex scandals and
impeachment (1998-1999), and the Battle for the White House in Election 2000 in
the U.S. In this study, I argue that sports is a largely untheorized and
underrated aspect of the society of the spectacle that celebrates its dominant
values, products, and corporations in an unholy alliance between sports
celebrity, commercialism, and media spectacle.
we enter a new millennium, the media are becoming ever more technologically
dazzling and are playing an increasingly central role in everyday life. Under
the influence of a postmodern image culture, seductive spectacles fascinate the
denizens of the media and consumer society and involve them in the semiotics of
a new world of entertainment, information, and drama, which deeply influence
thought and action. In Debord's words: "When the real world changes into
simple images, simple images become real beings and effective motivations of a
hypnotic behavior. The spectacle as a tendency to make one see the world
by means of various specialized mediations (it can no longer be grasped
directly), naturally finds vision to be the privileged human sense which the
sense of touch was for other epochs; the most abstract, the most mystifiable
sense corresponds to the generalized abstraction of present day society"
and everyday life are thus mediated by the spectacles of media culture which
dramatize social conflicts, celebrate dominant values, and project our deepest
hopes and fears. For Debord, the spectacle is a tool of pacification and
depoliticization; it is a "permanent opium war" (#44), which
stupefies social subjects and distracts them from the most urgent task of real
life -- recovering the full range of their human powers through creative
praxis. The concept of the spectacle is integrally connected to the concept of
separation and passivity, for in passively consuming spectacles, one is
separated from actively producing one's life. Capitalist society separates
workers from the products of their labor, art from life, and consumption from
human needs and self-directing activity, as individuals passively observe the
spectacles of social life from within the privacy of their homes (#25 and #26).
The situationist project, by contrast, involved an overcoming of all forms of
separation, in which individuals would directly produce their own life and
modes of self-activity and collective practice.
correlative to the spectacle is thus the spectator, the passive viewer and
consumer of a social system predicated on submission, conformity, and the
cultivation of marketable difference. The concept of the spectacle therefore
involves a distinction between passivity and activity and consumption and
production, condemning passive consumption of spectacle as an alienation from
human potentiality for creativity and imagination. The spectacular society
spreads its narcotics mainly through the cultural mechanisms of leisure and
consumption, services and entertainment, ruled by the dictates of advertising
and a commercialized media culture. This structural shift to a society of the
spectacle involves a commodification of previously non-colonized sectors of
social life and the extension of bureaucratic control to the realms of leisure,
desire, and everyday life. Parallel to the Frankfurt School conception of a
"totally administered" or "one-dimensional" society (Horkheimer
and Adorno 1972; Marcuse 1964), Debord states that "The spectacle is the
moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social
life" (#42). Here exploitation is raised to a psychological level; basic
physical privation is augmented by "enriched privation" of
pseudo-needs; alienation is generalized, made comfortable, and alienated
consumption becomes "a duty supplementary to alienated production"
In contemporary media
culture, professional sports are a major field of the spectacle. Whereas the
activity of participating in sports involves an active engagement in creative
practice, spectator sports involve passive consumption of images of the sports
spectacle. One of the distinguishing features of contemporary postindustrial
societies is the extent to which sports have become commercialized and
transformed into spectacle. During the industrial era, actually playing sports
was an adjunct to labor that created strong and skillful bodies for industrial
labor. Sports taught individuals both how to play as part of a collective, to
fit into a team, and to display initiative and distinguish themselves, thus
training workers for productive industrial work.
the postindustrial era, by contrast, spectator sports are the correlative to a
society that is replacing manual labor with automation and machines, and
requires consumption and passive appropriation of spectacles to reproduce the
consumer society. The contemporary era also sees the expansion of a service
sector and highly differentiated entertainment industry, of which sports are a
key component. Thus, significant resources are currently devoted to the
expansion and promotion of the sports spectacle and athletes like Michael
Jordan are accordingly recipients of the potential to amass high salaries from
the profits being generated by the sports/entertainment colossus.
sports was organized around principles of the division of labor and
professionalism, celebrating modern values of competition and winning. Sports
in the modern era replicated the structure of the workplace where both
individual initiative and teamwork were necessary and sports celebrated at once
both competing values. Sports were part of an autonomous realm with their own
professional ethics, carefully regulated rules, and highly organized corporate
structures. Postindustrial sports, by contrast, implode sport into media
spectacle, collapse boundaries between professional achievement and
commercialization, and attest to the commodification of all aspects of life in
the media and consumer society.
are many ways in which contemporary sports are subject to the laws of the
spectacle and is becoming totally commercialized, serving to help reproduce the
consumer society. For starters, sports is ever more subject to market logic and
commodification with professional athletes making millions of dollars. Further,
televisual sports events like basketball games are hypercommodified with the
"Bud player of the game," "Miller Lite genuine moments,"
the "Reebock halftime report," the "AT&T Time Out," and
"Dutch Boy in the Paint," along with ads featuring the star players
hucking merchandise. TV networks bid astronomical sums for the rights to
broadcast live professional sports events and superevents such as the Superbowl
and NBA championship games command some of the highest advertising rates in
appears that professional sports, a paradigm of the spectacle, can no longer be
played without the accompaniment of cheerleaders, giant mascots who clown with
players and spectators, and raffles, promotions, and contests that hawk the
products of various sponsors. Instant replays turn the action into high-tech
spectacles and stadiums themselves contain electronic reproduction of the
action, as well as giant advertisements for various products that rotate for
maximum saturation -- previewing forthcoming environmental advertising in which
entire urban sites will become scenes to promote commodity spectacles.
Corporations are now franchising sports arenas to be named after their products:
following Great Western Bank's payment to have the Lakers' stadium named the
Great Western Forum, the franchising of United Center in Chicago by United
Airlines, and the America West Arena in Phoenix by America West, Pacific
Telesis paid $50 million to name the San Francisco Giants new stadium Pacific
Bell Park and Philip Morris' Miller Brewing unit has shelled-out $40 million to
have its name atop the Milwaukee Brewers' new ballpark (New York Times,
August 23, 1996: C4). The Texas Rangers stadium in Arlington, Texas,
supplements its sports arena with a shopping mall and commercial area, with
office buildings, stores, and a restaurant in which for a hefty price one gets
a view of the athletic events, as one consumes food and drink.
probably will not be too long before the uniforms of professional sports
players are as littered with advertisements as racing cars. In the globally
popular sport of soccer, companies such as Canon, Sharp, and Carlsberg sponsor
teams and have their names emblazoned on their shirts, making the players
epiphenomena of transnational capital. In cycling events like the Tour de
France, or auto races like the Le Mans 24 Hours and Indianapolis 500, entire
teams are sponsored by major corporations whose logos adorn their clothes, bikes,
and cars. And throughout the world, but especially in the United States, the
capital of the commodity spectacle, superstars such as Michael Jordan commodify
themselves from head to foot, selling their various body parts and images to
the highest corporate bidders, imploding their sports images into the
spectacles of advertising. In this fashion, the top athletes augment their
salaries, sometimes spectacularly, by endorsing products, thus imploding
sports, commerce, and advertising into dazzling spectacles that celebrate the
products and values of corporate America.
years have thus exhibited a dramatic implosion of the sports spectacle,
commerce, and entertainment with massive salaries and marketing contracts for
the superstar players/celebrities. The major media conglomerates are becoming
increasingly interested in sports channels and franchises and the most
marketable athletes not only earn enormous multimillion dollar salaries, but
are able to secure even more lucrative marketing deals to endorse products,
star in film or TV programs, and even in the case of Michael Jordan to promote
their own product lines. Although the NBA was once the neer-do-well stepchild
of the more successful professional baseball and football franchises, in recent
years it has become one of the most popular of the U.S. sports industries on
the global scale (Andrews 1997 and LaFeber 1999). While the NBA only fed 35
weekly telecasts to foreign companies in the mid-1980s during the beginning of
Jordan's basketball career, by 1996 the roster had swelled to 175 foreign
broadcasts in 40 languages to 600 million households. In this process, David
Halberstam describes Jordan as "the first great athlete of the wired
world" (in Coplon 1996: 35).
dramatic evolution of the sports spectacle thus has a global dimension with the
major players now becoming international figures, marketed in global
advertising campaigns, films, music, and other venue of media culture. As
Michael Jordan's superstar agent David Falk puts it: "Michael has
transcended sport. He's an international icon" (in Hirschberg 1996: 46).
Indeed, in 1996-8, Falk put together deals that netted Jordan a record-breaking
$30 million contract for his next NBA season; continuing lucrative deals with
Nike and other corporations to promote their products to the estimated tune of
$40 million; the inauguration of his own cologne line, Eau de Michael Jordan;
and a high tech film, Space Jam, pairing Jordan with other NBA
superstars, Bugs Bunny and other cartoon characters, with accompanying product
line and estimates that Jordan could conceivably earn $20 million from the
latter two projects (USA Today, October 14, 1996: 6B). During the same
era, Los Angeles Lakers star Shaquille O'Neal signed a 7-year, $120 million
deal, leading his agent to comment: "Shaq represents the convergence of
sports and entertainment" (New York Times, August 23, 1996: C4).
with baseball and football as the American sport of choice of the contemporary
era, professional basketball has emerged during the Jordan era as the game that
best symbolizes the contemporary sports/entertainment colossus. To some extent,
the three major U.S. sports encapsulate three periods of socioeconomic
development. Baseball represents the challenge of a highly individualist
country to merge together individual aspirations and talents with teamwork and
spirit. Emerging in the 19th century, baseball disciplined individuals to fit
into teams but still rewarded individual accomplishments during a highly
entrepreneurial era of capitalist development.
is organized on a mass production industrial model that was appropriate to the
era of mass production that reached its highest stage of development in the
first half of the 20th century. Football is a team sport that exemplifies
arduous collective physical labor mated with individual achievement. Although
the star running backs, quarterbacks, and touchdown scorers often get the
credit and headlines, it is disciplined collective labor that provides the
infrastructure for football accomplishments and victory. Without a strong
defense and well-coordinated offense even the most spectacular players cannot
adequately function and their team cannot win. Moreover, brute strength,
valorized in the hard toil of the earlier factory era, was also important in
football, a distinctly combat sport, in addition to skill and finesse.
basketball, by contrast, has increasingly featured superstar feats of
individual brilliance. Michael Jordan is thus the perfect figure for
entrepreneurial capitalism, for the era of individual achievement and
excellence. Professional basketball is also the perfect high-tech television
sport, fast-paced, full of action, and resplendent with spectacle.
Hard-charging full-court action, balletic shots, and ubiquitous instant replays
make basketball the perfect sport for the era of MTV. Perfectly embodying the
fragmentary postmodern aesthetics, razzle-dazzle technical effects, and
fast-pace of today's television, basketball has emerged as the sport of the spectacle,
the perfect game for the sports/entertainment society. Once a primarily
American game, by the 1990s it has become a global popular during the era of
expanding global culture and economy.
the sports spectacle is at the center of an almost religious fetishism in which
sport becomes surrogate religion and its stars demigods. For many, sports is
the object of ultimate concern (Paul Tillich's definition of religion). It
provides transcendence from the banality and suffering of everyday life. Sports
stars constitute its saints and deities, while sports events often have a
religious aura of ritual. Sports fans are like a congregation and their cheers
and boos are a form of liturgy. In sports events, fans become part of something
greater than themselves, the participation provides meaning and significance
and a higher communal self, fused with the multitudes of believers and the
spirit of joy in triumph and suffering in tribulation. Sports are a break from
average everydayness, providing participation in ritual, mystery, and spiritual
aura (although, as our discussion is suggesting, sports also celebrates
dominant social values such as individuality, winning, teamwork, and,
increasingly, commercialism). In the pantheon of sports deity, Michael Jordan
is one of the reigning gods, and in the next section I will accordingly engage
his iconography and celebrity.
The Spectacle of Michael Jordan
the spectacles of media culture, Michael Jordan is a preeminent figure. As a
NBA superstar, Jordan was the very picture of grace, coordination, virtuosity,
and all-around skill -- adeptly marketed to earn a record salary and
endorsements. Jordan received $30 million to play for the Chicago Bulls in 1997
(Time, July 29, 1996: 61) and $33 million in 1998; he earned more than
$40 million in endorsements and promotions in 1995, making him the highest paid
athlete in the world (The Guardian, June 11, 1996: 6), and reaped in
excess of $45 million in endorsements in 1996, continuing his position as the
world's highest paid athlete. In June 1998, Fortune magazine estimated
that Jordan had generated more than $10 billion during his spectacular
professional career in terms of an increase in tickets sold, television
advertising revenue, increased profits of products Jordan endorsed, basketball
merchandising exploiting Jordan's figure, and his own films, businesses, and
product lines. Jordan is big business and has accelerated the trends
toward the implosion of business, entertainment, and sports.
Airness, a popular nickname for "the man that flies," thus epitomizes
the postmodern sports spectacle both on the playing field and in advertisements
and media spectacles. The Michael Jordan spectacle implodes athletic
achievement with commercialization, merging his sports image with corporate
products, and making Jordan one of the highest paid and most fecund generators
of social meaning and capital in the history of media culture. He is the iconic
exemplar of the media/sports spectacle, the obsession with winning and success,
and the quest for unimaginable wealth that were defining cultural features of
the last two decades of the twentieth century, continuing into the new
first appeared as a rookie with the Chicago Bulls in 1984 and although he was
not yet a full-fledged superstar, his agent signed him to what turned out to be
an incredibly influential and lucrative contract with Nike. With Jordan and a
new marketing agency, Wieden and Kennedy, the Air Jordan product line and
Nike's Swoosh symbol became icons of American and then global culture. At the
same time, Michael Jordan became an authentic American superstar, generally
acknowledged as one of the greatest basketball players of all time, one of the
most popular and well-known celebrities of media culture, and since 1988, the
sports celebrity most desired to market corporate products. During the era of
Nike/Jordan's ascendancy, cable and satellite television and the aggressive
promotion of the NBA by its commissioner David Stern increased tremendously the
visibility and popularity of professional basketball. The Jordan/Nike era had
seemed to be nothing that Jordan could not do on the basketball court. His slam
dunk was legendary and he seemed to defy gravity as he flew through the air
toward the holy grail of the basket. His "hang-time" was fabled and
as Cheryl Cole points out (1996), designations such as "Rare Air"
"render him extraordinary... and even godlike," a figure of
transcendence. Nike developed a product line of "Air Jordan" sports
shoes around the flying mythology and a 1990 NBA Entertainment documentary
titled "Michael Jordan. Come Fly With Me" described the player as
"the man who was truly destined to fly," and celebrated him as the
very embodiment of professional excellence, morality, and American values. The
collection of photographs of Michael Jordan as sports icon, media celebrity,
and downhome good guy is titled Rare Air, and highlights the efficacy of
the Michael Jordan publicity machine in fine-tuning his image as a transcendent
figure, a god of media culture.
writers too participate in the canonization of Michael Jordan, regularly
describing him as "the best player ever," "the greatest
basketball player who has ever lived," and even the "greatest athlete
of all time." The phrase "there is nothing he cannot do" is
frequently used to inscribe Jordan's sign-value as superstar sports deity, and
in Nike ads that star Jordan the corporate logo "just do it,"
signifies that you too can be like Michael and do what you want to do. The
Gatorade "Be Like Mike" commercial also highlights Jordan's status as
a role model and embodiment of iconic values and high aspiration.
dropping out of professional basketball to pursue a professional baseball
Jordan returned to the Chicago Bulls in 1995 and led the team to three straight
NBA championships. In the process, he reinvented himself as a superstar player,
moving from his patented flying air shots to become one of the great distance
and jump shot scorers of all time. In the words of one analyst:
At 33, Jordan is a
half-step slower than he once was. He is more beholden to gravity, less nuclear
in his liftoff. He can still take wing and be Air when he needs to,
still shift into turbo and batter the rim, but he chooses his spots now, waits
for clear paths. He no longer hurls himself into walls of elbows and forearms,
giving other side's behemoths free shots at his kidneys. He has traded risk for
feel, nerve for guile, spectacle for efficiency... and because he is Jordan,
even his efficiency can seem spectacular (Coplon 1996: 37).
the 1996-1998 seasons, the Bulls emerged as a popular culture phenomenon,
setting records for attendance, winning regular season games, and three
straight NBA championships. With Jordan, bad-guy extraordinaire Dennis Rodman,
all-around star Scottie Pippen, and Zen-inspired coach Phil Jackson, the Bulls
earned unparalleled media attention and adulation. The Jordan spectacle helped
make NBA basketball globally popular and Michael Jordan a superstar of
extraordinary resonance. Jordan henceforth was identified with ardent
competition and winning, embodying the values of hard drive, success, and
coming out on top; his shots regularly won key games and he became fabled for
the magnitude of his competitiveness and drive to win.
Michael Jordan was both a great player and continues to be a highly successful
marketing phenomenon, which calls attention to the construction of the
media/sports spectacle by corporations, public relations, and the techniques of
advertising. Just as Jordan marketed Nike, Wheaties, and other products, so did
these corporations help produce the Jordan image and spectacle. Likewise,
Jordan was used to market the NBA and in turn its publicity machine and success
helped market Jordan (Andrews 1997). A vast marketing apparatus of television,
radio, magazines, and other publications help promote and manufacture the stars
of sports and entertainment, attesting to an implosion between media and sports
culture, and thus sports and commerce. Indeed, Jordan became an entire sports
franchise with special pitches geared toward kids (i.e., an 800 number to order
Nikes that Jordan gives them "permission" to call), toward urban
teens, and targeting young adults with his fragrance products. And as Cole has
documented (1996), Jordan is part of a Nike P.L.A.Y. program designed to
present a positive corporate image and promote its products to a youth
Jordan was thus a dazzling sports spectacle who promoted both commercial sports
and the products of the corporations that market products to sports audiences.
His distinctive image is often noted and Jordan's look and style are truly
striking. His shaved head, extremely long shorts, and short socks were
frequently cited defining features that were highlighted in a Spike Lee Nike
ad. In a clever marketing device, the Lee figure repeatedly insists, "It's
gotta be the shoes!" (i.e., which make Jordan the greatest). In
addition, his wrist band, jersey number 23, and tongue wagging and hanging as
he concentrated on a play were distinctive signs of the Jordan trademark image.
fact, Jordan is so handsome that he has often been employed as a model and his
good looks and superstar status have won him countless advertising endorsements
for products such Nike, McDonald's, Gatorade, Coca Cola, Wheaties, Haines
shorts, and numerous others. A Gatorade ad tells the audience to "be like
Mike," establishing Jordan as a role model, as the very icon of excellence
and aspiration. In anti-drug ads, Jordan tells the nation to just say no, to
avoid drugs, to do the right thing, and to be all you can be, mobilizing the
very stereotypes of conservative postindustrial America in one figure. As
Andrews points out (1995), Michael Jordan is a paradigmatic figure of the
"hard body" (Susan Jeffords) that was the ideal male image of the
Reaganite '80s, a model of the powerful bodies needed to resurrect American
power after the flabbiness of the 1960s and 1970s.
is also a fashion-spectacle, nattily dressed in expensive clothes, drenched in
his own cologne line, and exhibiting the trademark shiny bald head. As such, he
was the perfect sports icon to market Nike shoes, combining tremendous athletic
ability with a well-honed fashion image that could be used to sell Nikes to a
wide array of audience, ranging from ghetto black youth to fashion-conscious
yuppies and executives. In the following sections, I will accordingly
interrogate the fateful marriage of Michael Jordan and Nike to see what it reveals
of the current stage of global capitalism and media spectacle.
Jordan, Nike, and the Race Spectacle
Jordan was perceived as a distinctively black spectacle, though many
claimed that eventually he transcended race and attained an almost godlike
status. It is generally acknowledged that he was the first black athlete to
break advertising's color barrier, paving the way for lucrative contracts for
the next generation of black athletes. During his difficult transitional year
of 1993, when Jordan was under intense critical scrutiny by the media and NBA
because of his alleged gambling problems and the unsolved murder of his father,
whose death many speculated was related to gambling debts, he became for the
first and only time recipient of the sort of negative press visited upon such
African American sports luminaries as Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, and his onetime
Chicago Bulls teammate Dennis Rodman.
Jordan publicity machine has regularly taken the line that Jordan
"transcends race" and commentators have claimed that Jordan is
Jordan himself usually plays it both ways in interviews, admitting that he
recognizes he is black but calling upon people to see him as a human being
(see, for example, the interview with Larry King on CNN, 1996). Yet, as a
cultural signifier, as the "universal singular" who represents more
general social significance (Denzin 1996, using Sartre's term), Jordan is a
highly polysemic signifier who encodes conflicting meanings and values. Michael
Jordan is both an example of what Berlant (1994) calls the "national
symbolic" (see the discussion in Cole 1996) and the "global
popular" (see the discussion in Kellner 1995 and Andrews et al 1996).
Jordan embodies national values of hard work, competitiveness, ambition, and
success. As a black superstar, he presents the fantasy that anyone can make it
in the society of competition and status, that one can climb the class ladder
and overcome the limitations of race and class. As a national and global
superstar, he represents different things to different people in different
countries (see the studies by Andrews et al 1996). Indeed, as Wilson and Sparks
(1996) remind us, different individuals and audiences are going to receive and
appropriate the text of Michael Jordan in different ways according to their own
race, gender, class, region, and other subject positions.
a polysemic signifier, Jordan thus presents a figure that mobilizes many
fantasies (i.e., athletic greatness, wealth, success, and upward mobility) for
the national and global imaginary, providing a spectacle who embodies many
desirable national and global features and aspirations. Yet Jordan is extremely
black and his race is a definite signifier of his spectacle, though his
blackness too has conflicting connotations. On one hand, as noted, he is a
privileged role model for black youth ("Be like Mike"), he reportedly
helps mentor young athletes, and he is a symbol of the African American who has
transcended race and who is integrated in American society, representing the
dream of assimilation, wealth, and success. But as Andrews has demonstrated
(1995), Jordan's blackness is overdetermined and has also served to signify
black transgressions, as when his gambling behavior became a subject of
negative media presentation and his father's murder led to speculation on
connections with organized crime. In these images, Jordan is presented as the
threatening black figure, as the negative fantasy figure of black deviance from
white normality. Jordan's physique, power, and dominance might also feed into
the fear of black bodies as Giroux suggests in his analysis of how contemporary
media culture is characterized by a simultaneous fascination with the
accomplishments of the black male body while also fearing the threat it poses
Jordan also has done anti-drug ads, represents constructive ideals of hard work
and discipline, and is frequently presented as a positive role model. Jordan's
"just say no" conflicts, however, with his "just do it,"
creating an ambiguous figure, who at once represents restraint and control, and
transgression and excess. But on the whole, after some negative media
representations during 1993 and the bad press that perhaps led Jordan to
prematurely retire from basketball, his return to the NBA and succeeding
superstar exploits generated unparalleled positive representations. Thus,
Jordan overall became positioned in media culture as the "good
black," especially against the aggressiveness and visual transgressions of
teammate Dennis Rodman who with his bleached and undisciplined hair, ear-ring,
fancy clothes, and regularly rebellious behavior represented the
"bad" black figure and would continue to do so during his brief
1999-2000 sojourn with the LA Lakers.
is thus the iconic figure of the corporate black, renown for his business
acumen, as well as his athletic skill. He is the role model who incarnates
basic American values. Successfully fashioning his image into a highly beloved
celebrity, Jordan was deemed the most popular person alive between 1987-1993,
tying with God in an Associated Press survey as the person black children most
admired, and in a poll of Chinese students, he ran neck and neck with Zhou
Enlai (Coplon 1996: 37). Thus, so far and on the whole, the Michael Jordan
spectacle serves as the model of positive representations of African Americans.
In consistent hagiography of his athletic skills, Jordan's concentration is
often remarked and the ways that his awesome talents are mediated by
intelligence are highlighted. Jordan¹s "airdriven bullets" seem to be
guided by a highly effective mental radar system and his trademarked
"aerial ballets" represent grace and spiritual transcendence as well
as brute force. Todd Boyd sees Jordan's talents as exemplary of a black
aesthetic and compares him to great black musical performers:
You can't watch
Michael Jordan and not be moved in the way one has been moved, at an earlier
time, listening to a John Coltrane solo. When I think about the way the game is
played and the influence African Americans have had defining the game and the
style of play -- they constitute a black aesthetic. It's a style that emanated
from the playgrounds, in the hood, and you can follow the lineage from Elgin
Baylor to Connie Hawkins to Julius Erving to Michael Jordan to Grant Hill to
Allen Iverson. Or, Bill Russell to Wes Unseld to Moses Malone to Patrick Ewing
to Dikembe Mutumbo to Alonzo Mourning. These are styles that are very much
like, say, the difference between trumpet players, saxophone players and piano
players (Boyd 1997b: 49; for fuller development of his concept of a black
aesthetic, see Boyd 1997a).
doubt, Jordan combined grace and cool, style and skill, drive and polish,
energy and aptitude. Moreover, as remarked earlier, Jordan seemed to embody
central American values and to serve as a role model for American youth and as
the white fantasy of the good African American. Thus, while it seems wrong to
claim, as is often done, that Michael Jordan transcends race, he seems to
produce unusually positive representations of African Americans, thus
undercutting racist stereotypes and denigration.
extent to which the spectacles of sports have promoted the interests of African
Americans and people of color has not yet been adequately understood. The
African American breakthrough in professional sports perhaps occurred first in
boxing with boxers of color such as Jack Johnson, Henry Armstrong, and Joe
Louis becoming renowned champions. But as recently as the 1940s, professional
baseball was segregated and athletes of color were forced to toil in
"colored" leagues, condemned in effect to the minor leagues. With the
breaking of the colorline in professional baseball in the 1940s with Jackie
Robinson, African American athletes could be part of ³America¹s pasttime² and
icons of the sports spectacle. Indeed, during the 1950s and 1960s prominent
African American baseball players such Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were
acknowledged as superstars of the spectacle.
and brown athletes succeeded in equally spectacular ways in professional
football, boxing, and basketball. Sports thus became an important route for
people of color to grab their share of the American dream and cut of the great
spectacle of "professional" (read commercial) sports. On the positive
side, the American fascination with sports promoted racial equality, acceptance
of difference, and multiculturalism. With the incorporation of black athletes
into professional sports they entered mainstream media culture as icons of the
spectacle, as role models for youth, and as promoters (often unaware) of racial
equality and integration.
fact, I would argue that the prowess of black sports heros and the rhythms of
rock music have done much to promote racial equality and the rights of African
Americans and people of color.
Postindustrial America became more and more of a media culture and professional
sports and entertainment became key features of media culture. Once African
Americans were allowed to sparkle and shine in media culture they were able to
enter the mainstream -- or at least major figures of the spectacle such as O.J.
Simpson, Hank Aaron, and Michael Jordan were. In Spike Lee's Do the Right
Thing (1989), Mookie, a pizza delivery man played by Spike Lee, confronts
Pino, the racist Italian son of the owner of the pizzeria about his racist but
contradictory attitudes toward African Americans.
Pino, who's your favorite basketball player?
Who's your favorite movie star?
Who's your favorite rock
star? Prince, you're a Prince fan.
Pino, all you ever talk about
is 'nigger this" and "nigger that," and all your favorite people
are so called "niggers."
Magic, Eddie, Prince, are not niggers. I mean they're not black. I mean. Let me
explain myself. They're not really black, I mean, they're black but they're not
really black, they're more than black. It's different.
Yeah, to me its different.
too has presented African American athletes as "different" in their
ads, serving as part and parcel of the American dream, thus helping promote
them to superstar celebrity status. Nike also helped promote the NBA and
professional basketball to global iconic status, enabling black athletes such
as Michael Jordan to attain world-class superstar status and to promote the
dream that success and renown are open to all in contemporary America. Yet one
could argue that these appropriations of the black sports spectacle were geared
above all to sell shoes and other commercial products and that the
transformation offered the consumer with the Nike shoe is a false
transcendence. Indeed, buying cool shoes will not produce a new superself, but
simply exploit its customer's pocketbook, forcing the unwary purchaser to buy a
product much more expensive than many competing products, simply because of its
sign value and prestige. And while one can affirm Nike's emphasis on activity
and exercise over passivity and boredom, it is not clear that the sort of
activity that Nike is promoting is really going to promote the interests of
minority youth. Gangs versus sports is not the only dichotomy of contemporary
urban life, and one might argue that education, technical skills, and career
choice and motivation are more important for contemporary youth than running
and shooting hoops.
the elevation to cultural icons of black athletes such as Michael Jordan is
itself a double-edged sword. On one hand, Jordan is a spectacle of color who
elevates difference to sublimity and who raises blackness to dignity and
respect. An icon of the sports spectacle, Michael Jordan is the black
superstar and his prominence in sports has made him a figure that corporate
America can use to sell its products and its values. Yet such are the negative
representations and connotations of blackness in American culture, and such is
the power of the media to define and redefine images, that even the greatest
black icons and spectacles can be denigrated to embody negative connotations.
As Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson, and Mike Tyson have discovered, those who
live by the media can die by the media, and overnight their positive
representations and signification can become negative. Media culture is only
too happy to use black figures to represent transgressive behavior and to
project society's sins onto black figures. Indeed, despite the endemic problem
of sexual harassment, Clarence Thomas is the representative figure for this
transgression; despite the troubling problem of child molestation cutting
across every race and class, Michael Jackson is the media figure who represents
this iniquity; despite an epidemic of violence against woman, O.J. Simpson is
the ultimate wife abuser; and although date rape is a deplorable frequent and
well-documented phenomena, it was Mike Tyson who became "poster boy"
for this offense and then in 1997-1998 for all of the ills of professional
boxing after his behavior in a title fight, his violence against seniors in a
driving accident, for which he was sentenced to a year in jail, and his
generally aberrant behavior (see Dyson 1994 and Hutchinson 1996 on the
demonization of black figures).
such is the racism of American culture that African Americans are the figures
of choice to represent social transgressions and tabooed behavior. Michael
Jordan has had his bouts with negative media representations, though on the
whole his representations have been largely positive and his figure has been
used to represent an ideal of blackness that American society as a whole can
live with -- or he presents an image of the transcendence of race that many
celebrate as a positive ideal. Yet despite his adulation, it would be a mistake
to make Michael Jordan the role model for African American or the youth
of the world. Comparing Jordan with baseball star Jackie Robinson, who broke
the major league color barrier in 1947, Jack White describes Robinson's
speaking out against racial injustice, his actions with Martin Luther King, and
his constant standing by political principles:
You can hardly
imagine contemporary black sports superstars taking an equally brave stand on a
divisive moral issue. Most are far too concerned with raking in endorsement
dollars to risk any controversy. In 1990 Michael Jordan, who occupies the
psychological spot that Robinson pioneered as the dominant black athlete of his
time, declined to endorse his fellow black North Carolinian Harvey Gant over
troglodyte racist Jesse Helms in a close contest for the U.S. Senate on the
grounds that ³Republicans buy shoes too.² More recently, Jordan brushed off
questions about whether Nike, which pays him $20 million a year in endorsement
fees, was violating standards of decency by paying Indonesian workers only 30
cents per day. His curt comment: ³My job with Nike is to endorse the product.
Their job is to be up on that.² On the baseball field or off it, when Robinson
came up to the plate, he took his best shot and knocked it out of the park. The
superstar athletes who have taken his place, sadly, often strike out (1997:
asked what he thought about the L.A. uprisings after the police who beat Rodney
King were declared not guilty in May 1992, Jordan replied, in Todd Boyd's paraphrase:
"I'm more concerned with my jump shot." Boyd comments: "Nobody's
asking you to be Malcolm X, but when an opportunity arises, don't run from
it" (1997b: 49). But Michael Jordan, like many athletes corrupted by the
sports spectacle and commercial culture, has abrogated his basic political and
social responsibilities in favor of expensive clothes, commodities, and a
megastock portfolio. Nike has played a key role in promoting these values and
is thus a major cultural force, a socializer and arbitrator of cultural and
social values, as well as a shoe company. There, the Nike/Jordan nexus is
worthy of critical reflection as the contradictions of Michael Jordan's persona
come to the fore in a striking way in his intimate connection with the Nike
Michael Jordan and the Nike Spectacle
culture is notorious for destroying precisely the icons it has built up,
especially if they are black. Jordan has already received his share of bad as
well as adulatory press and during 1996, as Nike was sharply attacked in the
media for their labor policies, Jordan was put on the defensive, frequently
being asked to comment on Nike's labor practices. In a carefully prepared
public relations response, Jordan countered that it was up to Nike "to do
what they can to make sure everything is correctly done. I don't know the
complete situation. Why should I? I'm trying to do my job. Hopefully, Nike will
do the right thing" (cited in Herbert 1996: 19A). Yet the media continued
to pester him and he was often portrayed in images during the summer of 1996
turning away from interviewers with a curt "No comment," when asked
what he thought of Nike's exploitation of Third World workers, especially
women, at extremely low wages.
and Michael Jordan are thus intricately connected. As noted, Nike signed the
relatively untested young basketball player to a contract in 1984 and evolved
one of the most successful marketing campaigns in history. There have been over
15 annual editions of Nike's Air Jordan shoes and Jordan has helped make Nike's
corporate logo and Swoosh sign one of the most familiar icons of corporate
culture, as well known as McDonald's Golden Arches and the Coca-Cola bottle.
From the beginning, Nike deployed the spectacle of Michael Jordan and itself
produced ads that celebrated its products in a commodity spectacle. With the
shift back to Weiden & Kennedy advertising agency in 1987, Nike devised
some of the most spectacular advertising campaigns in history, with many
featuring Michael Jordan (see the analysis by Goldman and Papson 1999).
of the distinctive features of the Nike campaigns was the implosion between
advertising and entertainment in its ads. Nike hired Spike Lee, who deployed
the Mars Blackmon character, played by himself, featured in his first
commercial film She's Gotta Have It (1986). Nike ad writer Jim Riswold
and producer Bill Davenport first thought of using the Spike Lee character
"when they noticed that Mars didn't take off his Jordans even to do the
nasty. Light bulbs went off in their heads. Was it tough to sell Spike on doing
an ad with Jordan? 'I think he would've done the commercial free, just to meet
Michael,' says Riswold" (Reilly 1991: 77). Lee accordingly produced the
first Michael Jordan Nike ad "Hang Time," using the black and white
photography of his first commercial film to show Mars hanging on a basketball
rim while Michael dunks him. Lee used the character shticks from the film,
having Mars calling out to Jordan, "Money! Why you wanna leave me
hangin'?" and in an ad shot in Mars's bedroom, shouting: "Shuddup
down there! We're trying to make a commercial!" Thus, the ads blended
humor and entertainment with the advertising pitch and helped circulate the
star/celebrity image of both Lee and Jordan, just as O.J. Simpson's Hertz ads
had made him a familiar icon of media culture.
another ad drawing on She's Gotta Have It, Jordan is standing with his
arm around the film's star Nola Darling as Mars tries to find out why she
prefers Jordan to him, finally concluding "Its gotta be the shoes, the
shoes!" Lee tired of the Mars persona and in an innovative series of
ads in the mid-1990s, Nike disposed of the commodity altogether, drawing on
familiarity with the corporate logo and swoosh sign, as well as celebrities
such as Jordan, to market their product. In one set of Nike ads, urban blacks
discuss the pleasure of playing basketball, while the 1994 P.L.A.Y. campaign
featured urban youth in crisis, facing alternatives between bored passivity and
(Nike-powered) activity, and sports and gangs (for analysis of these ads see
Goldman and Papson in this volume and for analysis of P.L.A.Y., see Cole 1996).
the Nike spectacle, there is, of course, the unedifying reality of underpaid
workers, toiling at sub-subsistence wages and under terrible working conditions
to produce highly overpriced shoes for youth, many of which cannot afford and
do not need such luxury items. Nike was one of the first major corporations to
shift to a mode of production labelled "post-Fordism" and "flexible
accumulation" (Harvey 1989). Shifting production of its shoes from the
U.S. to Asia in the early 1980s, Nike first set up factories in Taiwan and
South Korea. Both countries had at the time military dictatorships, low wages,
and disciplined work forces. They frequently subcontracted work to local
companies which would then be responsible for such things as wages, working
conditions, and safety. While there were no established unions, the largely
women workers in South Korea began organizing in response to poor working
conditions, humiliating treatment by bosses, and low wages. At the same time, a
democracy movement began in South Korea and at the first sign of labor unrest
called in government riot police to break up employees' meetings. Troops
sexually assaulted women workers, stripping them, and rape them 'as a control
mechanism for suppressing women's engagement in the labor movement,' reported
Jeong-Lim Nam of Hyosung Women's University in Taegu. It didn't work. It didn't
work because the feminist activists in groups like the Korean Women Workers
Association (KWWA) helped women understand and deal with the assaults. The KWWA
held consciousness-raising sessions in which notions of feminine duty and
respectability were tackled along with wages and benefits. They organized
independently of the male-led labor unions to ensure that their issues would be
taken seriously, in labor negotiations and in the pro-democracy movement as a
whole (Enloe 1995: 12).
and wages improved for Korean women workers, but Nike was in the process of
moving production to countries with lower wages and more control of labor, such
as China and Indonesia. During the
1990s, Nike's shoes have thus been produced mostly in Asia where the average
wage paid to their workers is often below the subsistence level. There was much
publicity over Nike's Indonesian sweatshops, where women would be paid
approximately $1.20 per day to produce shoes in the early 1990s. In 1992, 6,500
workers in the Sung Hwa Dunia factory in Serang, Indonesia, went on strike and
wages were raised to $1.80 a day and eventually to $2.20 a day (Kirshenbaum
1996: 23). Under intense pressure from the Clinton administration to improve
working conditions and labor rights, in order not to lose privileged trading
status, the Indonesian government raised the minimum wage to (a still pitiful)
$1.80 an hour and promised that the military would no longer harass and
brutalize workers. But, as Greider reports, the concessions were largely a
charade because "despite the official decrees, the military kept on
intervening in labor disputes, showing up at the plant gates and arresting
strike activists, herding the women back into the factories. This occurred 22
times within the first month following the supposed reform" (1994: 43).
addition, the companies often refused to pay the workers even the legal minimum
wage. The response of the Indonesian workers were a series of wildcat strikes,
international campaigns to publicize their plight, and continued efforts to
organize workers. Accordingly, Nike sought other sites of production,
increasing production in China and then moving to Vietnam where the minimum
wage is $30 per month and they can return to the one dollar plus change a day
wages of an earlier era. Basing his figures on an analysis by Thuyen Nguyen, an
American businessman who studied the conditions of Nike workers in Vietnam, Bob
Herbert wrote in a New York Times op ed piece on "Nike's Boot
Camps," that Nike workers in Vietnam are paid $1.60 a day while three
meager meals cost $2.10 a day, renting a room costs $6 a month, so that Nike's
workers are paid subsistant wages and work in conditions described as
"military boot camps" with widespread corporal punishment,
molestation of women workers, and deteriorating health of the workers (March
31, 1997: A16). There was so much negative publicity concerning working
conditions in sweatshops producing Nike gear that the corporation hired Andrew
Young to review its labor practices and working conditions (New York Times,
March 25, 1997). When Young returned some weeks later with a report that
whitewashed Nike, they took out full-page ads to trumpet the results, though
generally there was skepticism concerning Young's report and his inadequate
inspection of the Asian worker's plight.
Nike moves production from country to country to gain ever lower production
costs. NAFTA and GATT treaties have made it even easier for Nike and other
global corporations to move production across the U.S. border and Nike is thus
able to move its production around at will, searching for the lowest labor
costs and most easily exploitable working conditions. Meanwhile, its CEO Philip
Knight earns millions per year, his stock is worth an incredible $4.5 billion,
and Jordan, Andre Agassi, and Spike Lee are paid staggering sums for their
endorsements and advertisements (see Herbert 1996). Their profit margins are
enormous: Enloe (1995: 13) estimated that for a $70 pair of Nike Pegasus shoes,
$1.66 goes for labor; $1.19 to the subcontractor; $9.18 goes for materials;
$2.82 for administration and overhead; and Nike thus pockets $22.95 while their
retailer takes in $32.20.
the Asian financial crisis, the situation of Nike workers is even more dire.
The Village Voice reports that Jeff Ballinger, director of the workers'
rights group Press for Change "would like to see Jordan make good on his
pledge to visit factories in Southeast Asia where Michael-endorsed products are
manufactured. In a cover story for ESPN. The Magazine, Jordan said, 'I
want to go to Southeast Asia to see the Nike plants for myself... when
basketball is done" (Jockbeat, January 20-26, 1999). Ballinger says that a
Jordan visit would highlight the plight of Nike workers in countries such as
Vietnam and Indonesia that have been hit by the Asian financial crisis,
estimating that "Nike factory wages in Indonesia have dropped to the
equivalent of about $1 a day since the currency crash-- while the plummeting
value of the rupea has translated into about $40 million in labor-cost savings
for Nike" (ibid).
Nike engages in superexploitation of both its Third World workers and global
consumers. Its products are not more intrinsically valuable than other shoes,
but have a certain distinctive sign value that gives them prestige value,
that provides its wearers with a mark of social status, and so it can charge
$130-140 per pair of shoes, thus earning tremendous profit margins. Nike
provides a spectacle of social differentiation that establishes its wearer as
cool, as with it, as part of the Nike/superstar spectacle nexus. Nike promises
transcendence, a new self, to be like Mike, to fly, to gain respect. It enables
the customer to participate in the Nike/Jordan magic, to Be Like Mike, by
purchasing the shoes he sells! As the Spike Lee/Michael Jordan ad insists,
"it's the shoes!" and those who buy the shoes buy into a life-style,
an image, a commodity-spectacle. But a New York Times writer raised the
question: "Does being Mike entail any responsibilities beyond doing your
best on the court?" And answered:
ask Inge Hanson, who runs Harlem RBI, a youth baseball and mentoring program.
She was mugged earlier this year by a 14-year-old and his
10-year-old-henchboys. After they knocked her down and took about $60, a mugger
kicked her in the face. The next day, the bruise that had welled up on her left
cheek bore the imprint of a Nike swoosh. It lasted for three weeks and she felt
sad thinking she was probably robbed to finance a fancier pair of Nikes.
I can't honestly answer your question," she said. "How could Michael
Jordan possibly know that by endorsing sneakers -- sneakers! -- he was involved
in a crime? And yet, one does wonder if he has any responsibility to his
audience beyond just saying, 'Just Do It!'" (Cited in Lipsyte 1996).
Michael Jordan tries to present himself as the embodiment of all good and
wholesome values, he is clearly tainted by his corporate involvements with Nike
in the unholy alliance of commerce, sports spectacle, and celebrity. His
symbiosis with Nike is so tight, they are so intertwined with each other, that
if Nike is tarnished so too is Jordan (and vice versa -- which is one of the
reasons that Hertz moved so quickly to sever its ties with O.J. Simpson after
the discovery of the murder of his former wife Nicole and her friend Ron
Goldman). The fate of Nike and Michael Jordan is inextricably intertwined, with
Nike taking on Jordan to endorse their products early in his career, helping
make him a superstar known to everyone, while the Air Jordan product-line
helped reverse declining sales and make Nike an icon of corporate America with
a global reach that made Nike products part of the global popular (Andrews
1995). Thus, whereas Jordan was no doubt embarrassed by all the bad publicity
that Nike received in 1996, his involvement with the corporation was obviously
too deep to "just say no" and sever himself from this symbol of a
corporate greed and exploitation.
media figure of Michael Jordan thus has contradictory effects. While he is a
symbol of making it in corporate America, he also is tarnished by the scandals
and negative qualities with which the corporations to whom he sells himself are
tainted, as well as embodying negative aspects of excessive greed,
competitiveness, and other capitalist values. Moreover, although it is positive
for members of the underclass to have role models and aspirations to better
themselves, it is not clear that sports can provide a means to success for any
but a few. The 1995 documentary Hoop Dreams brilliantly documented the
failed hopes and illusory dreams of ghetto youth making it in college
basketball and the NBA For most would-be stars, it is a false hope to dream of
fame and athletic glory, thus it is not clear that Jordan's "Be like Mike"
is going to be of much real use to youth. Moreover, the widespread limitation
of figures of the black spectacle to sports and entertainment might also
contribute to the stereotype, as Mercer suggests (1994), that blacks are all
brawn and no brain, or mere spectacular bodies and not substantive persons. Yet
some criticism of Jordan as a basketball player has also circulated. Amidst the
accolades after his announced retirement, some criticisms emerged of his style
and influence on the game. Stating baldly that "I hate Michael
Jordan," Jonathan Chait wrote:
declare this in public, I am met with stammering disbelief, as if I had
expressed my desire to rape nuns. But I have my reasons. First, he has helped
to change the culture of sports from one emphasizing teamwork to one
emphasizing individualism. The NBA has contributed to this by promoting
superstars ("Come see Charles Barkley take on Hakeem Olajuwan!"), but
Jordan buys into it, too. Once he referred to his teammates as his
"supporting cast," and in last year's finals he yelled at a teammate
for taking a shot in the clutch moments that he, Jordan, should have
taken--after his teammate made the shot. The result is a generation of
basketball players who don't know or care how to play as a team. (Slate
evening delivery: Tues., Jan. 19, 1999).
also complained that Jordan was "the beneficiary of extremely favorable
officiating," that "Jordan has been so spoiled and pampered by his
special treatment that he expects a trip to the foul line every time an
opponent gets near him, and he whines if he doesn't get it.... The prevailing
ethic in American sports used to be teamwork, fair play, and rooting for the
underdog. Michael Jordan has inverted this ethic" (ibid). Others noted
that Jordan was so competitive and obsessed with winning that he was downright
"predatory," as teammate Luc Longley put it: "Opposing player
Danny Ainge described Jordan as destroying one opponent like 'an assassin who
comes to kill you and then cut your heart out.' Jordan, 'skilled at verbal
blood sport,' is hard on teammates and harder still, even merciless, in baiting
and belittling his nemesis, [Chicago Bulls general manager] Jerry Krause"
(Novak 1999: X3).
his obsession with wealth, highlighted in Spike Lee's nickname for Jordan --
"Money" -- circulates capitalist values and ideals, promoting the
commercialization of sports and greed, which many claim has despoiled the noble
terrain of sports. Jordan is the prototypical overachiever, pushing to win at
all costs with his eyes on the prize of the rewards of success and winning.
Moreover, as noted, so far, Jordan has not assumed the political
responsibilities taken on by other athletic idols of his race such as Jessie
Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, or Muhammad Ali. As Touré put it:
Any cause he might
have championed -- from something as morally simple as supporting the candidacy
of fellow North Carolinian Harvey Gant, who lost two close Senate races against
Satan's cousin, Jesse Helms, to any stand against any sort of American injustice--would
have been taken seriously because it was endorsed by Jordan. Yet as careful as
he has been at vacuuming every possible penny into his pocket... he has been
equally diligent about leaving every bit of political potential on the table.
Couldn't the world's greatest endorser have sold us something besides shoes? (Village
Voice, January 27-February 5, 1999).
has generally symbolized the decline of politics and replacement of all social
values by monetary ones that has characterized the turn-of-the-millenium global
economy. Such issues are relevant in assessing the Jordan-effect because
superstar celebrities such as Michael Jordan mobilize desire into specific role
models, ideals of behavior, and values. They produce an active fantasy life
whereby individuals dream that they can "be like Mike," to cite the
mantra of the Gatorade commercial, and emulate their idol's behavior and
values. Thus, part of the "Jordan-effect" is the creation of role
models, cultural ideals, values, and modes of behavior, and thus scrutiny of
what sort of values and behavior the Jordan spectacle promotes is relevant to
assessing the cultural significance of the phenomenon.
the figures and spectacles of media culture play such an important role in the
culture it is therefore important to develop critical insight into how media
culture is constructed and functions. In this chapter, I have attempted to
theorize the role of the sports spectacle and in particular the significance of
the Jordan/Nike nexus in postindustrial America and to articulate the
importance for media culture of sports and the representations of a black
superstar. I have tried to provide critical insights into the contradictory
meanings and effects of the sports spectacle, the ways that sports provides
figures and ideologies to reproduce existing values, and the complex meanings
and effects of a superstar such as Michael Jordan.
into how media culture works and generates social meanings and ideologies
requires a critical media literacy that empowers individuals and undermines the
mesmerizing and manipulative aspects of the media spectacle (Kellner 1995 and
1998). Critical cultural studies is thus necessary to help demystify media
culture and produce insights into contemporary society and culture. Reflection
on the Nike/Jordan nexus reminds us that media culture is one of the sites of
construction of the sports/entertainment colossus and of the icons of
contemporary society. Media culture is also the stage in which our social
conflicts are played out and our social reality is constructed, so the ways
that the dynamics of gender, race, class, and dominant values are played out is
crucial for the construction of individual and society in contemporary culture.
Since Michael Jordan embodies crucial dynamics of media culture, it is
important to understand how the Jordan image functions, its manifold and
contradictory effects, and the ways that the Jordan sports/entertainment
spectacle embodies social meanings. Since the Jordan adventure is not yet over,
his figure remains a source of fascination that should evoke evaluative
scrutiny by critical cultural studies and social theory.
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Jack E. (1997) "Stepping Up to the Plate," Time (March 31):
Brian and Robert Sparks (1996) "'It's Gotta Be the Shoes': Youth, Race,
and Sneaker Commercials." Sociology of Sport Journal, Vol. 13, Nr.
*My comments on the sports spectacle and use of
Debord draws on work with Steve Best in our book The Postmodern Turn
(Guilford, 1997). Thanks to David Andrews for providing material and comments
which have helped with the production of this study.
. On the China and Bosnia references, see Dan McGraw and Mike Tharp, "Going out on top," U.S. News and World Report, January 25, 1999: 55. Summing up Jordan's achievements, Jerry Crowe writes: "His resume includes five most-valuable-player awards, 12 All-Star appearances, two Olympic gold medals and a worldwide popularity that filled arenas and boosted the stock of the companies with which he was affiliated" (Los Angeles Times, January 13, 1999: D1). In addition, he garnered six NBA championship rings, ten NBA scoring titles (a record); a 31.5 regular-season scoring average (best of all times), a record 63 points in a playoff game, 5,987 career playoff points (best all time), and made the game-winning shot a record 26 times during his NBA career. Tributes included: Indiana coach Bob Knight who mentored the budding superstar in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics called Jordan: "the greatest basketball player ever... the best player involved in a team sport of any kind"; Coach Pat Riley of the Miami Heat called him "the greatest influence that sports has ever had."; Jerry West, former NBA superstar and executive vice president of the Los Angeles Lakers, called him "the modern day Babe Ruth"; Jason Williams of the New Jersey Nets sanctified him as "Jesus in tennis shoes" (ibid), adding to the Jordan religious iconography coined by Boston Celtics great Larry Bird who marveled "God disguised as Michael Jordan" after Jordan scored 63 points against the Celtics in a 1986 playoff game.
. Halberstam, quoted in People, January 25, 1999: 56. In its front page story on Jordan's retirement, USA Today "employed three 'greats,' five 'greatests,' one 'greatness,' two 'marvelouses,' three 'extraordinarys,' one 'unbelievable,' one 'unmatched,' two 'awe-inspirings,' two 'staggerings,' one 'superstar'" and a superhybolic "great superstar" (Sports Illustrated, January 25, 1999: 32). Television talking heads commenting on Jordan's retirement speculated if he would run for President or "compete with Bill Gates in the business arena" (ibid), while in a completely earnest front-page story the Chicago Tribune suggested that Jordan could be an astronaut (cited in Time, January 25, 1999": 68). But the winner in the Michael Jordan Retirement Hyperbole Contest is Bill Plaschke: "Hearing that you'll never see Michael Jordan play competitive basketball again is hearing that sunsets have been canceled. That star-filled skies have been revoked. That babies are no longer allowed to smile" (Los Angeles Times, January 12, 1999: D1).
. Debord's The Society of the Spectacle (1967) was published in translation in a pirate edition by Black and Red (Detroit) in 1970 and reprinted many times; another edition appeared in 1983 and a new translation in 1994, thus, in the following discussion, I cite references to the numbered paragraphs of Debord's text to make it easier for those with different editions to follow my reading. The key texts of the Situationists and many interesting commentaries are found on various Web sites, producing a curious afterlife for Situationist ideas and practices. For further discussion of the Situationists, see Best and Kellner 1997, Chapter 3.
. For the complex events that led Jordan to this seemingly bizarre decision, see Smith 1995 and Halberstam 1999. During 1993, Jordan's gambling habits were criticized and increasingly the subject of scrutiny, and when his father was mysteriously murdered there were speculations that the murder was related to gambling debts, the NBA intensified its scrutiny of Jordan, and he abruptly quit basketball to pursue a quixotic and failed minor league baseball career, returning to professional basketball 18 months later to achieve his greatest athletic triumphs.
. This line frequently appeared in interviews upon Jordan's retirement by Mark Vancil who edited the Rare Air Jordan photography books and has been regularly promoted by commentators since the mid-1990s. Frank Deford argued in the Sports Illustrated collector's issue published after Jordan's retirement that Jordan is not "a creature of color" and transcends the racial divisions that have so sundered U.S. society. Matthew DeBord has recently written that Jordan is "trans-racial, the first African American cultural hero to massively evade blaxploitation by rising above it, elevating to a zone of rarefied commerce where the only pigment that anyone worries about is green" (1999). At times in Jordan's reception, this transcendence of race appears to be taking place, but such claims ignore the negative press of 1993 and the fact that African Americans celebrities can easily become whipping boys as well as poster boys. For a more nuanced analysis of the stages of Jordan's racial signification, see Andrews in this volume. For a critique of the oft-cited claim that Jordan transcends race, see the article by Leon E. Wynter, "The Jordan Effect: What's race got to do with it?" Salon (January 29, 1999).
. Of course, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and the civil rights movement did more to dramatize the plight of African Americans, but I would argue that sports and entertainment helped promote the interests of blacks and that the tremendous achievements of black athletes, music performers, and entertainers were essential in getting mainstream America to accept and respect blacks and to allow them into the mainstream -- in however limited and problematic a fashion.
. For a detailed critique of Young's report, see the study by Grass 1997.
. On the concept of sign value, see Baudrillard 1981; Goldman 1992; and Goldman and Papson 1996.