By David Walsh
16 January, 1999
The retirement of basketball player Michael Jordan, after 13 years as a
professional athlete, has generated a massive amount of media coverage.
One doesn't write an "astounding amount" of coverage only because the
US media's response is entirely predictable. Along with scandal-mongering
and beating the war drums, cultivating the public's fascination with
celebrities is one of their favorite pastimes.
In this case, one must say, at least the celebrity in question is someone
real talent. Here was clearly one of the great athletes of the century,
capable of extraordinary feats of physical skill, accomplished with balletic,
yet muscular grace and beauty. Jordan's activities around the basket-this is
someone who could drive in from the left, leave his feet, end up in mid-air
below and to the right of the basket and somehow, in a scooping motion,
release the ball accurately up and back toward the hoop before his feet
touched the ground-set new standards and raised the limit of the possible,
not only for basketball, but for sports as a whole. Ah, we all suddenly
realized, so human beings can do that!
And it was not simply his explosions and extensions into space that were
so memorable. Combined with Jordan's jumping ability and athleticism
were an extraordinary shooting touch from long distance, which cut the
heart out of more than one opponent, remarkable composure, court sense
and a fierce competitive spirit. There is nothing overblown about the
accolades being paid to his abilities as a player.
Moreover, Jordan makes a generally favorable impression as a human
being. At the press conference January 13 at which he announced his
departure from the sport, he paid tribute to a Chicago policeman killed on
duty whom, one suspects, he meant to identify with the average working
person. He went on: "My responsibility has been to play the game of
basketball and relieve some of the pressure of everyday life for people
who work 9 to 5, and I've tried to do that to the best of my abilities."
Although one should remember that he simply deflected to Nike
management with a certain amount of impatience accusations that child
sweatshops made his line of sneakers.
Jordan grew up in a working class family in North Carolina. His father
(murdered in 1993), the son of a poor farmer who was driving a tractor at
the age of ten, apparently inculcated ideas of tolerance and a belief in racial
equality in his children. James Jordan, whose closest neighbors and
playmates when he was a child were white, "grew up color-blind in an era
[he] calls the 'Amos and Andy days,'" according to a 1990 newspaper
account. In that same piece, Michael Jordan told a reporter, "That's the
greatest lesson I've learned from my parents. I never see you for the color.
I see you for the person you are. I know I'm recognized as being black,
but I don't look at you as black or white, just as a person. ... I don't
believe in race. I believe in friendship."
If only one could leave it at that-if only one could simply pay tribute
great athlete and wish him well with the next phase of his life, to which he,
unlike countless other athletes, is able to proceed in decent physical
condition. But, as with so many aspects of American social life, the Jordan
story is also bound up with money and corruption and manipulated
As magnificent an athlete as he is, it should be said straight out that
sums of money showered on Jordan from his on- and off-court
activity--and those generated by him--have been absurd, bordering on the
obscene. At an estimated $78 million a year, Jordan was the top
money-maker in sports last year. He earned $33 million from the Chicago
Bulls, and the rest from endorsements, investments and other sources.
Jordan gets more than $20 million annually from Nike, with whom he first
signed in 1984, based in part on a percentage of sales. The company paid
Jordan more in 1992 than it paid the entire work-force of 75,000
workers employed by its subcontractors in Indonesia to manufacture
basketball shoes. He also has endorsement deals with Gatorade sports
drinks, food and clothing maker Sara Lee, Quaker Oats, cereal maker
General Mills, MCI WorldCom and battery maker Rayovac. His personal
fortune has been estimated at half a billion dollars.
Jordan has also made others rich. Fortune magazine once calculated that
he had generated $10 billion in the world economy. Nike's Jordan-based
products produce more than $250 million in annual revenue. The stock of
the company fell more than four percent Tuesday over concern that his
retirement would hurt sales of the company's athletic shoes and apparel.
Moreover, economists in Chicago expressed concern about the impact
Jordan's departure would have on the well-being of the city. "Clearly ...
there has to be some [economic] effect," said Diane Swonk of Bank One
In a press release issued after his retirement announcement Nike's
management boasted (or nearly warned) that while the former Chicago
Bull had retired from the National Basketball Association, he had not
retired from being a pitchman for them. (As a wire service headline put it,
"Jordan May Leave Basketball, But Not Marketing Team.") The hope of
the firm's management is that the bonanza will continue.
Nike's marketing has combined flattery, promotional hype and worship of
wealth in an unpleasant manner. Announcing the introduction of the "Air
Jordan XIV" this past autumn, for example, a company spokesperson
rhapsodized: "This year's Jordan was inspired by Michael's latest car, the
Ferrari 550 Maranello. This car is the epitome of high end, high tech,
go-fast auto design." The press statement continued: "The Air Jordan XIV
strikes a balance between the athletic and the aesthetic ... between
performance and luxury ...between who we are and who we want to be."
This is about a basketball shoe, let's remember. Although not just any
basketball shoe-the suggested retail price is $150.
Naturally, Jordan is not responsible for everything said or done in his
name, but there is something unsavory and inevitably corrupting about such
an enterprise. It would be absurd to imagine that he has progressed, in the
words of the Chicago Tribune, "from his carefree days as a kid in North
Carolina to the pressures of being a corporate giant," with his soul and
Nor has the Jordan phenomenon left the population unscathed. One of its
more negative consequences no doubt is the cultivation of individualism
and selfishness. The media treatment of Jordan's enormous success
encourages many young people to believe that they can escape their
difficult conditions of life by following the basketball star's path. For
ninety-nine point nine percent of them this is an illusion, and a bitter one. It
is an illusion that helps to prevent many from looking deeply at the more
general causes of their discontent.
The circumstances from which so many young people are suffering--lack
of opportunity, poverty, economic and social marginalization--are linked to
the cult of celebrity in which for the most part they participate. Excessive
celebrity must be linked to inequality, indeed becomes a rationale for
inequality and reinforces it, ideologically and materially. The heaping of
fame and wealth upon a single individual, or a handful of individuals, is only
possible and meaningful if the vast majority have no access to those
Another question that arises under these conditions is: why the extreme
level of adulation? Even granted that Jordan is an extraordinary figure, the
attention and media hoopla seem far out of proportion. It might be asked
indeed how many of those caught up in the Jordan mania have actually
seen him play on a regular basis and how many are simply impressed by
the phenomenon. As a 1995 Chicago Tribune article, which considered
Jordan as "a cultural icon," suggested, "Michael the Marketed cannot be
separated from the Magic of Michael."
But beyond that, what is the social significance of an athlete taking center
stage in American social life? Polls have shown that Jordan is the celebrity
American children most want to talk to, and he has ranked among the most
admired people in the eyes of the public. Americans once placed Jordan
fifth on a list of "most-respected newsmakers," behind Mother Theresa,
Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan.
In the same 1995 Tribune article, sports sociologist Harry Edwards
commented, "The critical point is to have someone of extraordinary genius
in a particular endeavor ... even if that endeavor is of relative unimportance
to the condition of society. Because of that dimension of the extraordinary,
he represents the best and greatest potential of the species--a Gandhi, an
Einstein, a Michelangelo."
There is an element of genius in the greatest athlete, and Jordan certainly
belongs in that category. But it is a quality that is bound up with and
predicated on a considerable degree of natural and instinctive ability.
Genius on the basketball court is impossible without certain physical
attributes, indeed only comes into being if those attributes--eyesight,
coordination, strength, size--are present. The genius that involves
imaginatively reconstructing the world socially, scientifically or aesthetically
depends on highly-developed mental powers and is of a qualitatively
Edwards' comment is not an explanation, it is simply an accommodation to
a distorted state of affairs. Why do Americans invest so heavily in their
sports heroes, and celebrities in general? Katarina Witt, the German
Olympic figure skating champion, told the Tribune reporter, "There is in
America a fascination about athletes that is greater than anywhere else in
There are at least two sides to this issue, and both are related to the
and intellectual vacuum at the center of American society. On the one
hand, millions of people are leading lives of quiet desperation, going about
their daily lives without any sense of a greater purpose to their existence
than the struggle to make ends meet. Largely denied richness and pleasure
and variety and meaning, they turn hungrily to the media-chronicled lives of
celebrities--who apparently have everything they don't, who are "real"
while they are, to themselves, non-existent--in search of a life with content.
This vicarious existence stands in for real existence, except because it is
not real or substantial, it can never fill them up, and so they are always
desperate for more, something, anything to fill up the gaping hole.
On the other hand, this same vacuum manifests itself in the absence of
virtually any genuinely attractive figure in politics, the media or public life
generally. It was impossible for a sports star to swell to monumental size in
the American popular consciousness as long as there were figures who
were respected, rightly or wrongly, for their accomplishments on behalf of
society as a whole. Who deserves such admiration today? After all, the
Jordan retirement coincided with the opening of the Senate trial of Bill
Clinton, the latest phase of a process that has degraded and discredited the
entire political establishment and exposed it for what it is, a cesspool of
Jordan is gone. Impossible as it now seems, there will be those who will
surpass his accomplishments. Nature and time will more or less
automatically take care of that. The social questions raised by his career
and retirement are not so easily resolved. They deserve attention.