Some issues raised by Michael Jordan's retirement

                      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 of
                      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 to a
                      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 the
                      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
                      spirit unscathed.

                      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
                      different order.

                      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
                      the world."

                      There are at least two sides to this issue, and both are related to the moral
                      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.