Forget LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. Michael Jordan is without a doubt the greatest basketball player the sport has ever seen. In fact, he stands today as one of the most enduring and prominent sports figures of all time, a man whose competitive drive and unparalleled excellence has shaped him into a global brand of success. Ever since his emergence as a star for the Chicago Bulls, kids have been striving to become “like Mike,” clamoring to Nike stores to buy his shoes or other gear if necessary. He was a superstar in its entirety, not simply an emblem for the black community but for the nation as a whole. But the question stands: did he overcome the barriers of race to promote a colorblind society, or did he simply ignore his race and abandon the black community he represented?
Michael Jordan was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1984, a time removed from the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement that nevertheless still bore its scars. His agent began pursuing a shoe deal with an athletic company, and eventually the partnership between Jordan and Nike began. It was at this time that Michael Jordan’s “image” was born. After all, when it comes to retail and marketing, the only thing that matters is the image. Who’s promoting these shoes? Who will I emulate if I buy them? Just how cool/new/like me is this guy? I would argue that it was this point in Jordan’s career, the instance in which he and his influence moved beyond the basketball court and into media and society, that he began to blur the lines of race.
Meanwhile, on the court, Jordan’s stock was soaring. He was dunking on power forwards, hitting game-winning shots, and proving himself superior to any and all competition. As he became more and more popular on the basketball court, his image in the media did as well, and soon “Michael Jordan”, with his expensive shoes and multiple endorsements, became a bonafide brand. And, like any brand, his image and public depiction had to be maintained in order to sustain and promote his sales. This is when the issue of race begins to come in play.
Michael Jordan was able to become a superstar for everybody, not just blacks. He showed what hard work and natural talent could accomplish for the entire population, instead of merely the African American community. White kids wanted to be “like Mike” just as much as everyone else. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that he was black, just that he was a great basketball player. In a way, Michael Jordan was able to transcend race and make it irrelevant to his public depiction, becoming arguably the first and most prominent African American major athlete ever to do so. Could he even have been one of the final steps toward an equal and colorblind society?
The other side of the equation is that even if a lot of the public didn’t put an emphasis on his race, Michael Jordan was still black and still a member of the African American community. Unlike Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, and many other black athletes who came before him, Jordan did not become a vocal advocate or racial symbol; instead, he merely remained a basketball player. This is not meant as a criticism; after all, no one ever asked him to represent the grievances of an entire race, nor was he necessarily expected to. That being said, Jordan took a step in a different direction from his predecessors and forged a new black athlete- one who no longer needed to become a racial symbol to be idolized or recognized.
This silent attitude and focus on public perception was perhaps never more prominent than in 1990, when Michael Jordan was asked by his former UNC college coach Dean Smith to endorse Senate candidate Harvey Gantt, a black civil rights activist running against the segregationist and racist Jesse Helms in North Carolina. Jordan, one of the most high profile figures in the country, refused, saying “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
As previously mentioned, Jordan was never compelled or expected to give a political endorsement. Most professional athletes don’t. This decision does, however, mark a separation that he subtly defined between activism in the black community and economic interests. By refusing to endorse Hantt and support civil rights in order to preserve his image, Jordan showed that he wanted to be a business man, not an advocate. Beyond this, he did little to engage himself in the African American community throughout his career, effectively distancing himself. So now one must ask: did he ignore his race and heritage?
In a way, Michael Jordan was a whole new kind of black athlete. Instead of exceeding despite his race, like Jackie Robinson, or demonstrating it proudly, like Muhammad Ali, he made it a non-issue. When people saw Michael Jordan, they didn’t think “black man in sports”; what they saw was simply an incredible basketball player. Ultimately, Jordan was able to transcend race, to move beyond its duties and labels. Whether this was a move toward equality and a colorblind society or an abandonment of his roots is a question that could be debated continuously. The answer could be both. There might not even be an answer. Regardless, Michael Jordan redefined the role of African American athletes, moving beyond the labels of a race to focus more on a brand and media depiction.
Merlino, Doug. “How Michael Jordan Became the First Modern African-American Superstar Athlete.” Bleacher Report. Bleacher Report, 20 May 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.
Granderson, LZ. “The Political Michael Jordan.” ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures, 14 Aug. 2012. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.