Everyone wants to “Be Like Mike”
How media transformed Michael Jordan into a Living Legend
December 19, 2012
By the time Michael Jeffery Jordan retired from basketball for the 3rd and final time after the 2003 season, he was recognized as much more than a phenomenal basketball player. Jordan was the face of the National Basketball Association, which at the time was at the height of its popularity. In the 90’s the NBA raked in billions of dollars due to superstars like Michael Jordan becoming global commodities. During this era in professional basketball, MJ became synonymous with the NBA. From his Air Jordan brand sneakers, to his endorsement deals, to his 7 figure basketball salary, Jordan had the world at his fingertips. He was the generation’s best player and played for an extremely successful franchise, the Chicago Bulls, which helped fuel his brand. These elements lead to Michael Jordan’s rise to astronomical heights, and thus he became “the greatest basketball player who ever lived.” In reality, Michael Jordan was a great basketball player, but mass media marketing made MJ a “god amongst men.” Throughout NBA history there have been players who were just as good, if not better than Jordan. Through mass advertisement, Nike, the NBA, and other media conglomerates lead to the cultivation of Michael Jordan and his brand. Mass Communication Theory describes cultivation theory as the use of media outlets, like television, to cultivate or create a worldview that, although possibly inaccurate, becomes the reality because people believe it to be so.
“Jordan’s presence as corporate logo and cultural signifier made him more than a postmodern
Icarus… Jordan read NBA read Nike (and all the other endorsements) epitomized a larger world presence which entranced the young in many cultures, validated Western materialism and consumer instincts at the expense of other moral codes and social values…” (Andrews 443).
From Chicago, Illinois to Tokyo, Japan kids everywhere wanted to “Be like Mike.” Jordan was an immortal sports figure and was invincible “there was nothing he could not do.” In 1996, he starred in the cartoon movie “Space Jam.” The Looney Tunes need “Air Jordan’s” assistance to win their freedom against the evil aliens. The movie embodied the media portrayal of MJ’s “superhuman abilities.” The face of the NBA combined with the one of the most popular children’s cartoon brand ever to make huge box office splash. Worldwide, this movie has grossed more than $230,000,000. Because MJ meshed well with Wall Street, and was accepted amongst religious politics he developed a mass appeal. Jordan was ranked in a several polls with “God” as the most admired global being/deity.
Michael Jordan symbolizes the 1990s spectacle both on the basketball court and in advertisements and media exposure. His athletic achievements were commercialized and his sports image was personified through corporate products which led to Jordan becoming one of the highest paid and most fruitful generators of social meaning in the history of media culture. “…Symbols transform the socialization process, freezing it from the bonds of both space and time” (Baran and Davis 318). Through symbols we can be transported anywhere in the globe, which explains Jordan’s ascension of global popularity.
Michael Jordan’s fame transcended his ethnicity, and he was immune to the negative stereotypes that plague blacks in America. Jordan is a unique Black attraction and his ethnicity is a prominent feature of his image. “Black media personalities like Michael Jordan… focus, organize, and translate blackness into commodifiable representations and desires that can be packaged and marketed across the landscape of American popular culture… we are witnessing the ‘African Americanization’ of global popular culture…” (Denzin 320). MJ is a reflection of national/capitalist values of hard work, dedication, competiveness, ambition, and success. As an African American superstar, he defied the odds and he served as a model of excelling through competition and status in our society despite the limitations of racism and classism.
Jordan is a figure whom people from all demographics fantasize about (athletic greatness, wealth, success, etc), he provides a symbol that represents desirable national as well as global aspirations. He is a privileged role model for Black youth, and is the symbol of an African American who has transcended race and has assimilated and thrived in American society. He achieved the “American Dream” of assimilation, wealth, and success. “Jordan seems to embody… American values and serve as a role model for American youth and as the White fantasy of the good African American… Michael Jordan transcends race, he seems to produce unusually positive representations of African Americans, thus, undercutting racist stereotypes and denigration” (Kellner, 464).
Professional sports were segregated as recently as the 1940’s. Minorities were forced to participate in “colored leagues,” which were essentially minor leagues due to lack of adequate funding and resources. Once blacks integrated and assimilated in professional sports they began to dominate. Sports became an opportunity to minorities to get out of poverty and live the “American Dream.” American fascination with sports eventually promoted racial equality, acceptance of difference, and cultural diversity. Once black athletes were incorporated into professional sports, they entered mainstream media culture as icons of the spectacle, as role models for youth, and by default promoters of racial equality. Michael Jordan’s global fame was like destiny in the era of the communication satellite. Since America was the hub of wired world, and given basketball’s easy comprehensibility, it was only a matter of time before an iconic figure emerged as the poster child for Nike, the NBA, and even America.
In 1984, Michael Jordan’s sports agent, David Falk, helped him land an unprecedented endorsement deal with Nike. The most important aspect of the deal was promotion. Falk negotiated that Nike must spend at least 1 million dollars in promotion in the first year of his deal (which was unheard of in the 1980’s). Through the strategic promotion and marketing of Michael Jordan, Nike created a superhero.
“Our commercials are several things—they’re color, they’re music, and they’re athletic, and
frankly, what people learn and know is that we are an American company. We’re selling products that are authentic athletic, and Michael Jordan is one image that represents that. He is probably the best recognized, best-known American athlete throughout the world. – Richard J. Donahue, Nike president (1993)
Michael Jordan became the America’s cash cow due to Nike’s manipulation of the economy, culture, media, and technology by “fashioning a commercially viable language of appearances and images.” This tremendously successful media marketing campaign resulted in a global demand for the Air Jordan brand, Nike, and the NBA. MJ’s unique images are highlighted in Nike’s promotion of his brand, for example a Nike ad starring Spike Lee that insists that “It’s the shoes” (which make Jordan the greatest).
In 1996, Jordan received sharp criticism from the media for his affiliation with Nike, and the company’s exploitation of Third World workers at ridiculously low wages.
“Nike engages in super exploitation of both its Third World workers and global consumers. Its
products are no 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 to $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: ‘Be Like Mike, buy the shoes he sells!’…” (Kellner 463).
Though Michael Jordan embodies good and wholesome values, he is still tied to the manipulative corporate sponsors he represents. His brand is tied to Nike’s so much so that if Nike’s reputation suffers, so will Jordan’s and vice versa. This bond was formed because of Jordan’s endorsements from the company very early in his career. His Air Jordan product line helped turn the company around when it was struggling, and turned Nike into an American corporate icon. Once Nike was established in America, it became popular around the world elevating its global popularity. “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 greedy and exploitative corporation” (Kellner 463).
“When the real world changes into simple images, simple images become real beings and effective motivations of a hypnotic behavior… Experience and everyday life is thus mediated by the spectacles of media culture that dramatizes our conflicts, celebrates our values, and projects our deepest hopes and fears…” (Kellner 458) The “spectacle” is this case refers to sporting events, and they are used to pacify and disable political agendas. It is referred to as a “permanent opium war that stupefies social subjects and distracts them from the most urgent task of real life…” (Kellner 458). The spectacle is received by spectators, who are consumers of a social system based on compliance and conformity. Spectacles are controlled by the elites in society and are used to control all aspects of leisure, desire, and everyday life. Spectator sports in an postindustrial era requires consumption and misuse of spectacles to reproduce a consumer society. Postindustrial sports turn sporting events into a media spectacle. Professional achievements and commercialization becomes intertwined and result in the commodification of all aspects of life in a media/consumer society.
“Throughout the world, but especially in the United States, the capital of the commodity
spectacle, superstars like Michael Jordan commodity 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 which celebrate the products and values of corporate America” (Kellner 460).
The NBA, with Michael Jordan’s brand at the forefront, transformed Jordan’s African American identity into a “nonthreatening Reaganesque masculinity” for male youth across the world. Jordan became a commodity in a global, mass-mediated culture because his is “the racially neutral, NBA superstar; everybody’s All-American; White America’s solution to the race problem” (Denzin 321).
In 1993, a study was conducted among New Zealand youth looking to find out who they recognized as sports heroes. Despite being thousands of miles away from Chicago, Illinois, the New Zealand youth overwhelming chose Michael Jordan as their sports hero. In a country in which basketball is an afterthought, while rugby and cricket are the most popular sports, how could this happen? It all started with the rise of satellite television. Despite not having access to view full games of MJ, New Zealand was exposed to all of his highlights, as well as countless conglomerate corporation ads starring Jordan.
In many card collection stores in across the country like “Card Crazy”, Michael Jordan paraphilia is like gold. MJ remains the top selling card while New Zealand’s new international rugby star, Jonah Lomu (who is referred to as the Michael Jordan of rugby) ranks a distance 2nd in popularity.
After World War II New Zealand’s politics shifted towards American capitalist ideals, like regulation and privatization. While looking for a searching for a national identity, society began to embrace American culture and commodities. There was a “simultaneous multitextual circulation of Jordan’s identity on commercial satellite television and the corroborative presence of Nike’s Air Jordan shoes and apparel, related Nike promotions, and other NBA paraphernalia, in numerous commercial spaces…” (Andrews 436). Their society was captivated by the NBA (and Michael Jordan) because it represented the inciting American values of glamour, wealth, and explicit commercialism. Michael Jordan, along with the NBA energized popular and local culture in New Zealand. That in turn, enabled the profitability of local sports like the rugby union and rugby league to become a professional sport and make it a global commodity which thrust this country into the world of postmodern industrial sports.
During the 1990s the globalization of Nike along with the NBA, led to Michael Jordan becoming a sports hero to the youth in Poland. In today’s global broadcast via satellite, Poland was fed footage of Jordan’s athletic ability through sports highlights. His dominance on the court was appealing to Polish youth. MJ represented the ideal standard in a society that was oppressed by communism. Poland viewed the United States as “a bastion of freedom, justice, economic success, personal achievement, and happiness… the reception of Michael Jordan in Poland must be seen in the context of the centuries-long Polish fascination with America and its culture” (Andrews 441). The American Revolution was happening during a time when Poland lost its freedom to totalitarian government, so America was always looked at as an ideal society filled with liberty and justice. Thousands of Polish flocked to the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries as a result. “In Poland, the adjective ‘amerykanski’ (America) came to mean “the best,” of superior quality.” Even today the proverbial ‘wujek z Ameryki’ (an uncle from America), stands for the enormous opportunities for achieving personal success that America represents to Polish people” (Andrews 441). Through commercialization, America became even more seductive and powerful which was so different from the harsh realities they faced in Eastern Europe.
After the overthrow of a communist rule that lasted almost a half a century, the Polish sought political and economic initiatives from capitalist governments and free market economy in Western Europe and North America. From 1989 to 1995, there was a massive birth and development in Polish consumer culture that craved items advertised by global popular culture. “The possession of material goods, which serve as important status indicators has been, perhaps, the most conspicuous social change within postcommunist Poland…” (Andrews 442). The demise of communism in Poland happened during the NBA’s and Nike’s strategic efforts to increase their global presence. Regular television broadcasts, increases in news coverage, magazine circulation, and advertisements led to a demand of the NBA and Nike within Polish culture. Soon Poland had access to NBA games once a week, and they were littered with commercial breaks filled with NBA stars and their paraphernalia.
In addition to TV coverage, Poland had three national magazines devoted to basketball: Tygodnik Koszykarski Basket, Magic Basketball, and Koszykowka. The national, regional, and local newspapers also had sports sections that covered the NBA. In fact, when Michael Jordan returned to basketball in 1995, it was covered on national news stations and received the front page in most newspapers. “Reading the intertextually fabricated narrative of Michael Jordan, the Polish consumer is encouraged to view him as the lastest reincarnation of the hyperindividualistic ideology most closely associated with American culture… Jordan represents the apotheosis of such American values as freedom, independence, lack of restrictions, informality, optimism, wealth, and entrepreneurial skills” (Andrews 444). MJ has all the elements of the “Polish American Dream.”
The fascination with the NBA was manifested in youth fashion. Hats, t-shirts, shorts, and sneakers with a NBA team logo were all the rage in Poland. If you idolized a particular NBA star, you had some type of NBA paraphernalia. “’Jordanki,’ original and authentic Chicago Bulls caps, No. 23 t-shirts, and other basketball paraphernalia are purchased to be worn as status indicators; streetwise fashions that identify the owner as someone who knows what’s “in”…” (Andrews 445). Young people saw Jordan and other American global icons as inspiration for their own dreams and ambitions. They offered a break from their trials and tribulations, and brings them one step closer to the “idealized America of the Polish popular imaginary.”
“Polish youth, American popular sport culture, including NBA basketball and specifically
Michael Jordan, becomes a prominent reservoir of ideas and an important source of reference for expressing the limits/possibilities, pleasures/pains, and fascinations/fears that delineate postcommunist Poland” (Andrews 446).
In spite of Michael Jordan’s location, he still managed to make a significant across the world. The products he endorsed, his images, and services from American were packaged, commercialized, and adapted to fit multicultural ideals. Jordan’s globalization occurred through strategic advertising techniques and exposure to increase the worldwide demand. Jordan’s persona was molded through the media and corporate America and avoided the prejudice that many African Americans face in the United States. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson calls MJ “the symbolic carrier of racial and cultural desires to fly beyond limits and obstacles, a fluid metaphor of mobility and ascent to heights of excellence secured by genius and industry.” Through his excellence on the basketball court and commercialization by elite American corporations, Michael Jordan truly became a living legend.
Baran, Stanley and, Dennis Davis. Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. Boston: Wadworth, 2012. Print.
Denzin, Norman K. “More Rare Air: Michael Jordan On Michael Jordan.” Sociology Of Sport Journal 13.4 (1996): 319-324. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.
Kellner, Dougias. “Sports, Media Culture, And Race- Some Reflections On Michael Jordan.” Sociology Of Sport Journal 13.4 (1996): 458-467. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.
Zbigniew Mazur, et al. “Jordanscapes: A Preliminary Analysis Of The Global Popular.”Sociology Of Sport Journal 13.4 (1996): 428-457. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.