Superathletes as Supersalesmen Football and Baseball Star Bo Jackson's Endorsements Raise Questions of Black Role Models

Article excerpt

HE is everywhere - advertising sneakers, cereal, a sports drink, and a phone company. Everyone knows Bo.

That's because Bo Jackson plays not one but two professional sports: He's a running back for the Los Angeles Raiders and outfielder for the Kansas City Royals. Off the field he is a college graduate (he went back to school after leaving to play pro ball), a husband and father of three. He is the subject of books and magazine articles, and a TV talk-show guest. This month marks the publication of his official autobiography, "Bo Knows Bo."

Many Americans wouldn't know Bo without his widespread exposure in the award-winning "Bo Knows" campaign for Nike "cross training" sport shoes. In these TV and print ads, Bo plays every sport. In a new ad for a sport drink, Bo competes against an alligator (signifying the competitor) and wins. For $15, kids can join the Bo Jackson Fan Club advertised on boxes of Cheerios.

All this has made him millions, and pushed him into the predominately white elite of players making more money endorsing products than on the field. But is that kind of recognition progress?

Some say Jackson's ads are harmless, fun, and promote a positive role model for blacks. Others say the ads are hurtful and ultimately explotative.

"We need all the role models we can get," says Charles Farrell, special projects coordinator at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Boston's Northeastern University. Like many, he lauds Jackson's commercial appeal as good for the black community.

"The phenomenal success of Bo Jackson's `Just Do It' campaign and (Chicago Bulls guard) Michael Jordan's `Air Jordan' campaigns are clearly showing that now these black athletes are just as marketable and perhaps more marketable than white athletes."

Whites usually sell sports products: Nine of the top ten endorsers are white, says Mr. Farrell. Basketball's Michael Jordan, who earns about $5 million, is in the middle of the pack. Bo Jackson should make that list next year, with endorsements estimated by Farrell to reach $2 million.

Jackson is a natural for shoe ads, says Farrell, because he appeals to young blacks, who help set fashion trends for everybody. "Why not use somebody black who is readily identified as a role model within the black community?" he says.

On the sidewalks of Boston, Nike (the street name rhymes with "bike") and Adidas high-tops seem to predominate. Bo's cross-trainers are not yet fashionable.

"Nikes are the only shoes I wear," says Andrew Sheppard, a college student from South Carolina, showing off his broken-in black-leather high-tops advertised by the Chicago Bulls basketball great. …