Jordan's role as an American and black cultural icon reaches far beyond simply his basketball prowess, primarily because of his remarkable business skills and careful image cultivation. He has become the image, not only of the greatest basketball player of all time, but of a family man, a black man, a businessman and ultimately a modern American hero that transcends cultural boundaries. His image marketing has contributed to his legendary status and allowed him to become a hero to many as a household name and a true icon of black and white culture. This is evident in his own power as a corporate symbol to many companies like Nike. "Michael Jordan is the greatest endorser of the 20th Century," Nike President Phil Knight declared in USA Today. (Meyers: 17C)
The Jordan image is paradoxically complex and simple at the same time. He is a simple family man married with two children who has not been involved in any of the domestic scandals so typical to modern athletes. But he still makes $20 million a year in endorsements from Nike alone, in addition to his $50 million contract with the National Basketball Association. (Meyers: 17C) He is under specific contract that he must wear Nike apparel from head to toe until the year 2023 to cultivate this corporate image. All of his elements contribute to his all-encompassing appeal. His height, at 6"6 is not extremely abnormal and many men can identify with him. He is a well-spoken graduate of the University of North Carolina-- Chapel Hill, an educated man. He is even an executive, a member of the Oakley sunglasses board of directors.
He even extends beyond just a symbol of Nike to become a "national symbol." (Cole: 372) He has participated in Nike's P.L.A.Y. (Participate in the Lives of America's Youth) advertisements to advocate the importance of helping to encourage the younger generation to participate in sports. A Nike P.L.A.Y. advertisement features Jordan contributing to this image of the helpful American hero as he asks, "What if there were no sports? Would I still be your hero?" (Cole: 375) Through the various advertising campaigns including the Nike slogans of "It's gotta be the shoes" and "Air Jordan" as well as the Gatorade ads to "Be Like Mike", Jordan's image has gone beyond basketball -- it has become superhuman, truly legendary at the hands of corporate magnates like Nike, Gatorade and Wheaties. He has become a true American hero of sports and culture that idealizes American virtues of "personal drive, responsibility, integrity and success." (Andrews: 136) Representing these ideals, Jordan has captivated the entire American audience.
Despite his representation of culture, however, still some have criticized him for foregoing his true black culture and forgetting his "blackness" in his cultivated image. Some critics have interpreted his transcendence of racial barriers as an indication that he is leaving his "blackness" behind. They argue that "Nike's promotional strategy systematically down-played Jordan's blackness ... (inspiring) the compulsion for African-Americans to disavow their blackness." (Andrews: 139-140) Michael Eric Dyson has even made the accusation that Jordan has sold out his culture, that he is guilty of "...turning cultural capital into cash ..." with his image management. (Dyson: 70) Even the owner of the Chicago Bulls, Jerry Reinsdorf, has seemed to acknowledge Jordan's transcendence of the color barrier. He once asked and answered, "Is Michael Jordan black? Michael Jordan has no color." (Andrews: 125) The argument that Jordan has foregone his blackness in order to appeal to a wider audience or that he has sold out his ethnicity, however, seems irrelevant -- he simply appeals to a wide variety of cultures. He inherently brings his black culture wherever he goes even if it is not blatant -- he shows it in his fluid, dynamic style of basketball, in his portrayal of the good, black family man who has created success for himself and simply in the way he conducts himself.
While he has become tremendously successful and extremely wealthy, he still demonstrates his symbolism as a black man who has made himself successful -- not as someone who has forgotten who he is. University of Virginia Luther P. Jackson Multicultural Center Director Ishmail Conway sees Michael Jordan first as a basketball player, but also as a positive example of a black man making his way in a white-dominated society on his own terms -- providing an example for all with his image in a positive manner. "He is one of the first black people that has been able to capitalize his image in a way that he controls it," Conway said. "America has always looked for a singular black icon with which it could deposit some leadership." (Conway: 12/2/97) And in Jordan, Conway says Americans have found some of this. "He holds his family together and values education, entrepreneurship, a hard work ethic and excellence," Conway said.
Despite the fact that Jordan's Nike image may sometimes appear not to emphasize his ethnicity, Jordan inherently carries it with him as a black American hero. No one can deny that he is a black man who has taken over a league that has become a black-dominated league. He has simply made a stronger message since he is black. He has come to represent the class of inner city blacks fighting to survive and make a life for themselves in a difficult, challenging world of modern America. Jordan "...allows us to believe what we wish to believe: that in this country, have-nots can still become haves: that the American dream is still working." (Andrews: 138) This image could be portrayed by a white man, but the portrayal of this image by a black man makes it a much more powerful in terms of the creation of a dynamic symbol of black self-empowerment. This is the force of Michael Jordan's corporate and social image that further enhances his strength as a black cultural object, a true American hero.
Jordan's image is one of the most complex that America has ever seen. It is corporate in the form of Nike, Gatorade and Wheaties. It is athletic in the form of his status as the greatest basketball player in the world. It is ethnic from the sense that he has taken the world by force as a black hero that manages to transcend the racial barriers that once harassed other black athletes like Jackie Robinson in eras where racism was more blatant in the sports arena. Jordan plays in a league that now consists of 80% black players -- much to the tribute of his symbol as a hero to many young blacks growing up watching him in the past decade -- surviving in a realm where 80% of the coaches are white. (Price: 33) His image as a black basketball player has inspired an entire generation of young black basketball players to rise up as forces in the NBA after Jordan's model -- the Orlando Magic's Penny Hardaway, the Detroit Piston's Grant Hill and the Boston Celtics' Antoine Walker all grew up with Jordan and then entered the league and were eventually compared to him. He has truly inspired an entire generation of NBA players.
The secret to Jordan's image is that he appeals to every facet of society, even internationally. Sports Illustrated's Steve Rushin, in an article on the Chicago Bulls recent trip to Paris, captured the image of Jordan "...in Nikes beneath the Eiffel Tower ... promoting McDonald's..." that gave him the power of an international symbol in the company of "swooshes, golden arches, the monument and Michael." (Rushin: 68) Perhaps, this image and this level of recognition more than anything tells the story of the power of Michael Jordan as a social icon in America and around the world.
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