Sport and the Color Line: Black Athletes and Race Relations in Twentieth-Century America

By Patrick B. Miller; David K. Wiggins | Go to book overview

16

THE SPORTS SPECTACLE, MICHAEL JORDAN, AND NIKE

Douglas Kellner

MICHAEL JORDAN is WIDELY acclaimed as the greatest athlete who ever lived, named "Athlete of the Century" by the ESPN television network. Yet he is also a major media spectacle on a global scale, combining his athletic prowess with skill as an endorser of global commodities. In Michael Jordan, globalization, commodification, sport, entertainment, and media come together to produce a figure who serves as a totem of athletic achievement, business success, and celebrity. Yet Jordan's participation in a series of scandals and periods of bad press, mixed with his usually laudatory media presentation, captures the contradictions of spectacle culture, illustrating that those who live by media spectacle can also be brought down by its cruel omnipresent power and surveillance.

As the millennium came to a close, Jordan reigned as one of the most popular and widely known sports icons throughout the world. The announcement of his retirement from basketball in January 1999, after leading the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships, unleashed an unparalleled hyperbole of adjectives describing his superlative athletic accomplishments. In China, the Beijing Morning Post ran a front-page story 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. 1 An icon of the global popular culture, Jordan is "a kind of new world prince," in the words of Pulitzer-prize-winning author David Halberstam: "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 the world." 2

Not only has Jordan been acclaimed as a global superstar, but he is also frequently characterized in terms of deity. Boston Celtics great Larry Bird marveled that he had encountered "God disguised as Michael Jordan" after Jordan scored sixty-three points against the Celtics in a 1986 playoff game. Jason Williams of the New Jersey Nets sanctified him as "Jesus in tennis shoes" while many referred to him as a "Black Jesus." At a 1992 Olympic press conference, Jordan was embarrassed to be asked if he were a "god" and France Soir headlined: "Michael Jordan in France. That's better than the Pope. It's God in person." 3

In 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

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