Mortgaging michael jordan's reputation

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Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu understands the consecration of artists as the "magical division" created to distinguish the "sacred" from the "profane."1 The legitimacy of this magic, however, depends on popular, professional, and critical recognition.2 Michael Jordan's consecration in basketball culture undoubtedly can be legitimatized popularly (e.g., his team sold out every home game from November 17, 1987, through April 14, 2003), professionally (five MVP awards, six Finals MVPs, and so forth), and critically (the most appearances on the cover of Sports Illustrated, ESPN's greatest North American athlete of the twentieth century, among others). But more interestingly, professional basketball is understood through the consecrated figure of Michael Jordan. In a random sample of blog posts and reader comments on the popular basketball blog from January 2006 through April 2008, 54 percent of the 120 references to Jordan are analogical.3 In other words, Jordan is mentioned as a way of conceptualizing another player (e.g., "the next Jordan, " "heir to the Jordan throne"), or a Jordan moment is invoked to understand a second moment in NBA history. Jordan's legacy has become a cognitive map of recent basketball culture, with events organized around the Jordan dynasty, the post-Jordan era, the Jordanless Eastern Conference, the NBA pre-Michael, MJ's Chicago Bulls, and so on. When Kobe Bryant struggled in a title-deciding Game 6 blowout loss to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals, Boston fans chanted, "You're . . . not . . . Jordan!" Bryant's inability to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to the championship was, according to sportswriters, further confirmation that "Bryant is no Jordan"4 and "a valuable lesson" for "all the people who have been busy comparing" the two.5 Consequently, I experienced some dissonance when I was asked to write on Jordan as an illustration of the black athlete whose reputation has declined over time. This is not to say that Jordan has never received negative publicity, either as a player or since retiring: heavy gambling, allegations of adultery (Jordan and his wife divorced in December 2006), perceived maltreatment of teammates and team management, and knocks against Jordan's ability as a team executive-but never as a businessman-have all been part of the Jordan dialogue.6 But as Henry Louis Gates Jr. points out, "An indiscretion is truly damaging only if it's discordant with your perceived character."7 So Jordan's gambling, infidelity, bullying, and overaggressiveness become affirmations of his alpha male status and extensions of the same fiercely competitive nature that made him a superstar on the court. An often-repeated quote by Jordan's father, James Jordan, exemplifies this sort of streamlining: "My son doesn't have a gambling problem. He has a competition problem."8 So while some postretirement drop-off is inevitable for any celebrated athlete, let alone a player once asked (seriously) by a journalist how it feels to be a god, Jordan, who exited the game for the third and final time in 2003, remains a beloved figure-only 6 percent of the Jordan references in the blog sample were critical-and a commercial powerhouse.9 Two out of every three pairs of basketball sneakers purchased in the United States are made by Jordan Brand, a Nike subsidiary run by Jordan since 1997.10 However, since the 1990s, a school of criticism has begun a deeper critique of Jordan's legacy, moving beyond surface-level gripes and gossip-style reproach to consider Jordan's cultural, social, and economic meaning. These criticisms diverge from popular conceptions and instead construct Jordan's reputation and race from a particular sociopolitical vantage point. This work usually comes from one of two places: scholarly writing (critical race theory, sociology of sport, cultural studies, or the like) or a niche of sportswriting that treats sport as reflective of and influencing society rather than a diversion from it. In this genre of criticism, Jordan is constructed as a neoimperialist11 or, going the other way, a prosaic blank billboard for corporations to fill, 12 a shirker of moral responsibility and indifferent to political and social causes about which he should care, 13 and disloyal to the black community.14 While these representations of Jordan are in a sense analytic creations belonging most clearly to these critics and discordant with the empirical reality of Jordan's lionization, they are insightful because they reveal popular lines of thinking about race, community, capitalism, and morality that surpass Jordan. Sociologist Gary Fine provides a useful framework for thinking of these claims: "Reputations are not only made, they are used for purposes beyond characterizing the figure to address the circumstances or community in which he acted."15 I have consolidated the criticism into four dominant issues critics take with Jordan, and I analyze how his critics, who function as custodians of Jordan's reputation, resolve those issues. Each resolution is a decision about Jordan's moral relationships to the larger literal or symbolic constituencies of which he is considered a vital part-the NBA, corporate America, the black community, and so on-and about which parties are ultimately responsible for the problem. The choice of problems to associate with Jordan and how these problems are worked out analytically show how Jordan's race and reputation are constructed anew even as they are deconstructed. As it relates to public icons, reputation may be understood in terms of the issues critics deem relevant to a public figure's legacy, how these critics choose to resolve such issues, and the resonance of these critical narratives with the audience.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationFame to Infamy
Subtitle of host publicationRace, Sport, and the Fall from Grace
PublisherUniversity Press of Mississippi
Number of pages24
ISBN (Print)9781604737516
StatePublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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