Muhammad Ali Was a Rebel. Michael Jordan Is a Brand Name

By Crowley, Michael | Nieman Reports, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Muhammad Ali Was a Rebel. Michael Jordan Is a Brand Name


Crowley, Michael, Nieman Reports


In celebrating Jordan as a hero, are we merely worshipping capitalism?

Michael Jordan's retirement from the NBA in January was not just a sports story but an international news event. His farewell press conference was carried live on CNN, his face graced the front page of The NewYork Times, and when a White House event overlapped with Jordan's announcement, even Bill Clinton noted that "most of the cameras are somewhere else."

Obviously, the hysteria had a lot to do with Jordan's unrivaled mastery of the game. But the Jordan phenomenon is much bigger than his scoring titles and six championship rings. Jordan has transcended his on-court achievements to become something more: a ubiquitous corporate pitchman who hawks for giant companies like Coke, McDonald's and Nike, an entertainer whose role in the movie "Space Jam" helped it gross $450 million--in sum, he is the world's biggest celebrity.

But he is even more than a celebrity. He is something much rarer: a hero. Jordan is almost universally adored, not just as a great player but as a man of honorable character. In a recent survey of Chinese students Jordan tied with Zhou Enlai as "the world's greatest man." The old Gatorade slogan "Be Like Mike" may be out of circulation, but the sentiment remains: Jordan is the ultimate role model.

Yet it might be worth pausing, in the midst of all this adulation, to ask just what kind of hero we have chosen. Some sports legends--Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe--were respected as much for their personalities and ideals as for their athletic prowess. And while he can match and perhaps exceed the athletic accomplishments of men such as these, Jordan doesn't even compete when it comes to having a lasting, noncommercial impact on society.

The truth is that Jordan's is not an especially interesting personality. He tends to be bland, never spontaneous, sometimes petulant, and often arrogant. He is ruthlessly competitive, although not in the same comically endearing way as Ali. And Jordan has so far been utterly disinterested in discovering the potential that a man of his fame, wealth and stature possesses to make the world even a slightly better place.

Ultimately, what Jordan represents aren't so much values as the capitalist principles of relentless competition and the bounty of total victory. He is a monument to the self. And with the stock market soaring and political participation plummeting, perhaps he is the icon of our time.

With virtually no dissent, the American media--and not just sportswriters-have unquestioningly accepted the Jordan mythology. Dozens of news commentators have proclaimed Jordan the greatest basketball player of all time, hands down, as if Wilt Chamberlain somehow doesn't count because he played before the advent of ESPN. But the hagiography extends beyond the question and coverage of Jordan's athletic abilities. It often seems that Jordan's consistent ability to win has worked to inflate our estimation of his character.

Because Jordan was nearly perfect on the court, there seemed to be a desire to find perfection in his character as well. "What made Jordan special was his demanding code of personal excellence," The New York Times declared. Even a writer as wise as David Halberstam, for instance, can't resist calling Jordan the "most charismatic" player the game has seen--apparently ignoring the affable likes of Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson, Walt Frazier and others, and embellishing Jordan's bland persona.

When Jordan flashed a less amicable side--when he reportedly called New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy a "fucking hockey puck," for instance--the press tended to chuckle and dismiss it. Critical assessments of Jordan seemed to be off-limits. And why was it that only Time magazine and one Milwaukee newspaper ran a story about a woman who filed a paternity suit against Jordan last year?

Admittedly, Jordan has taken his lumps in the media, most notably when stories emerged several years ago about his gambling habits. …

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