Tuesday Book: Michael Jordan, a triumph of capital over culture

Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism by Walter LaFeber (WW Norton, pounds 15.95)
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THERE ARE two Michael Jordans. One is the flesh-and-blood American basketball player with frailties, such as a gambling habit and a tendency to condone the dubious practices of his principal sponsor, Nike. The second is an unconquerable global phenomenon. This iconic Jordan is adored, revered, even worshipped everywhere, but not for his leadership, his knowledge or his alignment with great causes.

Jordan the icon is a product of people's imaginations. When he moves like a lightning fork across the basketball court, his credulous fans accept that he can defy gravity as easily as he could save the world from aliens. After his retirement from competitive basketball earlier this year, his team, the Chicago Bulls, deteriorated. Stocks on the Dow Jones slipped and there were fears for the whole sport of basketball as it recovered from a players' strike - about which Jordan fence-sat, as we have come to accept.

To explain this idolatry in terms of Jordan's skills would be a simplification; yet there is not much more to him. Gambling contretemps apart, he is an innocent; he speaks out on nothing, and smiles a lot. In short, he is bland; and that may be the clue.

Jordan is a triumph of capital over culture. A good though not remarkable amateur with the University of North Carolina, he turned pro in 1984 with Chicago and was signed up with the emerging Nike sports goods company, headed by Phil Knight. He presciently featured Jordan in a series of ingenious TV commercials (some directed by Spike Lee) and launched a range of goods bearing his silhouette. Jordan's agent, David Falk, became the architect of a complex commercial structure that ensured that his client's name and image appeared on breakfast cereals, underwear and burgers.

Jordan went to Chicago at the same time that the National Basketball Association (NBA) was desperately trying to rid itself of its reputation of being "too black" for the major TV networks (most players were African Americans). It was also known for its inordinate number of drug-using players. A new commissioner, David Stern, imposed harsh sanctions on drugs violators and convinced TV companies that he could deliver a product white audiences would embrace.

Jordan was part of his plans. Clean, wholesome, with none of the uncertainty or menace typically attributed to black males, Jordan looked perfect. By 1991, when the Bulls began their domination of the NBA championships, the final games were transmitted across the US and to 70 other countries. By 1996 the play-offs were shown in 175 countries, with commentaries in 24 languages. Jordan earned about $25m a year, 15 per cent of which was his salary, the rest being endorsements. (He remained the top-earning endorser up to last month, when Tiger Woods signed a $90m deal with Nike.)

Walter LaFeber's essay (at 160 pages, it is no more than that) is one of several works on Jordan. While it is far from the best, it has the virtue of contextualising the player in terms of the process of Americanisation that often passes for "globalisation". For LaFeber, Jordan is both a catalyst for and a product of America's "soft power" - its cultural influence around the world. The US has written the "grammar" of international television by creating its formats and concepts. Sport is one such format, Jordan one such concept.

Moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner created the conditions to make Jordan possible when they launched satellites and laid cables to enable virtually the whole world to access US television. It spread like "out-of-control bacteria". Needing product to fill their channels, TV execs sent out as much sport as they could. This was a low-risk, high- entertainment strategy. Who better than the ultra-safe, hugely engaging Jordan to take US culture to the world?

So American media, advertising and marketing entered an unimagined era of global communications. "Michael Jordan personified that new era," argues LaFeber. Constructed by Falk, packaged by Knight, Jordan is a personification all right. He has become as integral to late-20th-century culture as his alliterative cousins Microsoft, Madonna and Mickey Mouse.

The reviewer's book `Making Sense of Sports' is published by Routledge

The daily poem is now on page 9