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Previously in Politics & Prose:

All the Presidents' Man (June 1999)
Jack Beatty reviews Name-Dropping, the new book by John Kenneth Galbraith, and recalls the days when liberals were cool. Seriously.

Slaves' Wages (May 1999)
What price can be put on the exorbitant theft of labor that was American slavery? Jack Beatty looks at a new work of history that suggests an answer.

Playing Politics With the Planet (April 1999)
A forecast of the 2000 election predicts squalls and continued global warming.

How Big Business Got a Soul (March 1999)
A recent book by Roland Marchand shows how the hated monopolies of the late nineteenth century used advertising to give themselves a makeover -- and to shape public opinion to their advantage.

More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

Most Valuable Player

A new book examines the economic impact of Michael Jordan and shows why his Airness represents globalism at its most powerful

by Jack Beatty

July 21, 1999

Michael Jordan has the soul of a cash register -- or so Walter LaFeber, a distinguished Cornel historian, shows in Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism, a trenchant new study of U.S. "cultural imperialism" today. There is no depth of tackiness to which Jordan will not descend. On a family visit to Paris, Jordan posed under the Eiffel Tower "wearing Nikes and promoting McDonalds," LaFeber writes. At the 1992 Olympics Jordan's huckstering led Dave Anderson of The New York Times to write (including Charles Barkley in his scorn), they "think they're here representing Nike instead of the United States." A typical mercenary moment came in game one of the 1993 NBA championship season. After scoring fifty-five points in the Bulls' victory over the Phoenix Suns, Jordan delayed joining his teammates in celebration; instead, still lathered in the sweat of the game, he filmed a McDonald's ad on the court.

Jordan is a symbol of the new transnational corporation and its power, through television and advertising, not only to influence global buying habits, but also to displace the indigenous cultures of other societies with the American monoculture of sneakers, hamburgers, and celebrity.

LaFeber begins with an account of Michael Jordan's life when it still belonged to him, setting Jordan's history within the context of basketball's. All would-be young athletes should know one socially redeemable fact about Jordan: he was cut from his high school basketball team in his sophomore year. "I went to my room and I closed the door and I cried," he told the sportswriter Bob Greene. By his senior year, Jordan had yet to make an impression on the basketball world; he was not on a list of the 300 hottest prospects for college recruiters. However, an assistant to the legendary coach Dean Smith, at the University of North Carolina, glimpsed Jordan's talent, and the Tar Heels awarded Jordan a scholarship. By his junior year at Chapel Hill, Jordan was, in the words of Sports Illustrated's Curry Kirkpatrick, "the finest all-around amateur player in the world."

"The first NBA game I saw was the one I played in," Jordan told Bob Greene. In fourteen seasons Jordan led the Bulls to six NBA championships. He did everything brilliantly, including winning championship series games with buzzer-beating shots. Above all, he seemed to stay in the air long enough to change his mind about which shot to take.

But good as Jordan was, he will likely be remembered almost as much for his relationship with the corporate world, especially Nike, as for his brilliant playing. At Jordan's first meeting with Nike's young president, Phil Knight, LaFeber dryly notes, "Jordan announced that in return for his endorsement he wanted, most of all, an automobile." Ah, such innocence! Fortune recently estimated that Michael Jordan had a $10 billion impact on the economy, half of which benefited Nike.

Nike alone could not "globalize" Jordan. That took the new technology of instant communication symbolized by Ted Turner -- founder of CNN, on which "foreign" is a banned word -- and Rupert Murdoch, with his satellites and his television networks on six continents. The novelty of television wore off for most Americans a generation ago, but not for many millions of people in less fortunate countries around the world, where the number of televisions per one hundred people has doubled since 1980. In international television ads for Wheaties, Hanes underwear, Coca-Cola, Gatorade, and Nike -- before hundreds of millions of watchers -- Michael Jordan went global. Chinese schoolchildren now rank him second only to Zhou Enlai as the greatest figure of the twentieth century.

To be sure, LaFeber says, the United States has long been an exporting country. But, he notes insightfully, "Standard Oil petroleum and McCormick harvesters were not uniquely American products; they challenged other cultures far less in the 1880's than did Nike athletic equipment and its accompanying advertising life style."

Does it mitigate our distaste for all this that the global cynosure of Americanness is a very black African-American male? One would feel more certain of one's answer if Jordan were not such a political eunuch. He says he avoids taking stands on controversial issues for fear of offending the customers of his corporate sponsors -- the corporations that pay for his $1000 bets on golf puts.

We used to scare the world, Gore Vidal has observed. Now we entertain it. Sports, sneakers, and hamburgers are our competitive advantage in world trade. Wal-Mart may be about to enter the British market. Thousands of cafés close in Paris as the long family lunch loses out to fast food. In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, wurst sandwiches yield to Big Macs. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a made-in-America belch.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of
Post & Riposte.

More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound.

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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