Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Michael Jordan the Athlete, the Commodity and the Legacy.

When future generations look back at the Michael Jordan legacy, they will realize that his endeavors as a professional athlete changed the manner of basketball, transformed America’s sports business culture and changed the way American culture views and tells the story of its athletes.

In 2009 the world of basketball is still living the trend started by number 23, in 1984. First, there is M.J.’s style; the indefensible high flying fade away jumper; his signature fast charging drive to the hoop; a drive characterized by a precise set of steps, which in slow motion resembled the finesse of a ballet dancer, but which in real-time was the artistry of an athlete who finished each drive to the basket with a forceful dunk, galvanizing fans, friends or foes, off their seats to their feet. Foremost, there are the countless game winning buzzard beaters. When it mattered most, like every great performer of a theatrical production, His Airness tried to end each game in dramatic fashion with the winning shot. Perhaps he didn’t succeed every time, but he made enough buzzard beaters to mystify other legends of the game such as Magic Johnson, who said of Jordan: “There is Michael Jordan and then there is the rest of us.” Finally, there is M.J. the fashionista, he played and dressed with style; the long shorts, the shaved head and his highly marketed Air Jordan’s are still resonant more than ever today. Jordan didn’t invent the fade away, the slam dunk, the buzzard beater, or the basketball shoe. However, across every playground and gym, basketball players continue to strive to play like it’s 1984.

Michael Jordan transformed America’s sports business culture. The business community has fostered the notion of the superstar athlete by investing billions of dollars in marketing and creating merchandise which are designed to augment the appeal of individual athletic achievements. Thus, given Jordan’s long list of accolades on the court, it was easy to transform M.J. the superstar into His Airness the commodity. This business strategy produced a line of goods which were very lucrative; the Nike Air Jordan clothing and shoe line, the “Wheaties breakfast of champions” slogan, the quintessential Gatorade “quench you thirst” commercials and the N.B.A ‘s top selling number jersey, Chicago Bull number 23 . The upside of this business revolution was the creation of new consumer markets, more consumption, more jobs and more profits. However, this new business model had less savory social effects, the Nike sweatshops in Asia and the violent robberies in schools and playgrounds where teens fought over the $150 pair of Air Jordan’s. Michael Jordan the commodity transcended the sport, having consequential effects on the socio-economic relationships of people across the globe. In essence, Jordan the commodity created a nexus among people who perhaps never met each other, but were connected by enthusiasm for the sport or by the labor of the M.J. commodity supply chain.

Finally Michael Jordan transformed the notion of the modern American athlete. “There is no “I” in team,” is a maxim used by many Americans when referring to the value of teamwork in sports. However, M.J.’s rise to superstardom has irrevocably changed the value of teamwork of professional basketball; many young American athletes now play team sports for the personal glory one can derive from individual athletic achievement, rather than the glory one can achieve from working within a team. That is not to say team work is a virtue which has been lost. There are plenty of examples of teamwork in basketball as well as in other professions. Jordan himself gives credit to and acknowledges the teammates who helped him achieve the championships, the scoring titles, the All-Star team selections etc... However, His Airness the superstar and M.J. the commodity has made it more difficult for coaches and parents to teach aspiring young athletes the value of teamwork when our youth are bombarded by a tide of marketing which glorifies the individual achievement over that of the teamwork.

In sum, the story of Michael Jordan is compelling, his legacy as a celebrity, as the consummate athlete and as the marketing commodity is a story which tells a greater narrative present in modern sports culture.

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