Michael Jordan, Inc.: A Pro Forma Statement

"It's not about the shoes."

It's not about the shoes, but at the same time it is about the shoes.

Though Michael Jordan and his shoes are likely the most mediated athlete-technology hybrid in history, very little of his appearance as text has been of the critical sort. One notable exception is Michael Jordan, Inc.: Corporate Sport, Media Culture, and Late Modern America, a collection of essays edited by David Andrews, the head of the Physical Cultural Studies program at the University of Maryland. The volume represents the work of many well-respected scholars in critical sports studies as well as contributions from cognate disciplines by luminaries such as Norman Denzin, Douglas Kellner, and Michael Eric Dyson.

"It's about knowing where you're going."

The book explores the social, economic, political, and technological issues surrounding Jordan and his corporate relationships (Chicago Bulls, NBA, Nike and Gatorade, etc.) and their effects on American and global cultures. While one cannot say that Jordan ushered in the age of what we currently understand as globalization, nor that globalizing processes "made" Jordan, it can safely be stated that a trialectic relationship between sport (MJ, Bulls, NBA, Dream Team), media companies, and corporate sponsors (notably Nike) assembled in a perfect storm (what Manuel DeLanda might consider a chaotic attractor in social non-linear dynamics) to exponentially accelerate the Jordan Effect to planetary proportions.

"Not forgetting where you started."

While Jordan the basketball phenom arguably arrived when he hit the winning jumpshot in the 1982 NCAA championship game, Jordan the postmodern spectacle arrived (or took off?) with the television ad campaigns to introduce his new, personalized Nike basketball shoe. Playing prophet to the coming phenomenon of Jordan was Spike Lee as the character Mars Blackmon, who uttered the immortal phrase of the consumerist 1980s: "Money, it's gotta be the shoes!"

Thus was launched the trajectory of Air Jordan.

"It's about having the courage to fail."

Though Michael Jordan, Inc. covers a wide swath in its many contributions, I would like to briefly discuss a topic that might be considered a coda to the original collection or perhaps a pro forma look at a future beyond the temporal bounds of the book's subject matter — specifically concerning the materialities of athletic body and media representation and how these flows intersect with the immateriality of data networks.

The vast potential and primary problem with sign value creation in the sport-media-sponsor trialectic mentioned earlier is that it is fundamentally rooted in the body athletic — in the body's ability to move through space rhythmically with teammates and competitors, to manufacture positive outcomes from routine sets and plays, and to hack creative possibilities from the continual unfoldings of these positive outcomes. The body is vectoralism's greatest strength and greatest weakness.

"Not breaking when you're broken."

But the body ages. It is organic. It wrinkles and withers and grays and slows and expires and decomposes. For an athlete, muscles become less elastic, bones more brittle, joints less lubricated, and metabolism less able to burn lipids.

Michael Jordan's body ages, despite the spectacle that precedes him, produces him, and perpetuates him. And while the creative hacks of the body athletic are not the only way to generate sign value in the sportocratic economy, Jordan's ability to do just that was bound to organically decline.

"Taking everything you've been given … and making something better."

Couretesy of MJ to the Max/NBAThis is not to say that the machinations of spectacle haven't attempted to arrest the aging process. A growing repository of images and information can be continually recombined to provide the illusion of youth. And media materialities that allow for space and time axis manipulation may be leveraged to this end as well.

Indeed, one need only look back to the 360-degree mocap recreation of Jordan's famous foul line dunk in Michael Jordan to the Max to see how material, embodied performance can be spatiotemporally dilated for spectacular purpose. While Jordan was too old at the time of the movie's production to dunk spread-eagled from the foul line, particularly with as much ease as the final cut shows, greenscreen techniques and clever 3-D computer animation slowed down the sands of metabolic time.

"It's about work … before glory."

But while the usefulness of a body may be prolonged for the creation of sign value, a limit is eventually reached after which new sign value must be created with the same body in other ways (nostalgia) or else a new body is required. With Nike, we witness a steady trend of working the corporeal Jordan out of the sign value creation process.

Recall the campaign a little over four years ago that featured Carmelo Anthony, Derek Jeter and Warren Sapp — Jordan's student, designated hitter, and alter ego, respectively. Resample: "As MJ's flesh becomes weak, no longer available to produce meaning for Nike and its image-signs, the distilled essence of his excellence — his aura, that invisible Air of Jordan — transcends the body and morphs or transmogrifies into the bodies of his disciples."

"I am not Michael Jordan," they chorused, even though they had become Him.

"And what's inside of you."

Two years later, the "2nd Generation" campaign would feature video footage of young basketball players replicating the signature moves (creative hacks) from Jordan's career. This was possible because the DNA of Jordan — or more correctly, his memes rather than his genes — had seeped into the network and emerged as the fittest for survival.

The implied message in both of these texts was a liberation for Nike (and its consumers) from the shackles of Jordan's fleshy prison. Become light!

Or, at minimum, add to the product life cycle and the unit life cycle a mean time before failure for the athletic motor of sign value creation.

"It's doing what they say you can't."

An important component to this erasure of the corporeal Jordan is that sponsorship through the Jordan Brand is spread across many different sports. Basketball, baseball, gridiron football, and boxing, which constitute to a large degree the entire history of sport in modern America (and its attendant racial history), are dissolved in a postmodern moment of sport as engine for the new vectoral order of intellectual property production and consumption (with race, as Andrews points out, becoming a "floating racial signifier").

This erasure of the corporeal Jordan continues in the latest major Nike campaign, "Become Legendary". The feature ad spot is fascinating in that the 60-second commercial is composed almost exclusively of old amateur video footage of current Jordan Brand athletes. There are two minor exceptions: first, a shot of a contemplative Ray Allen in his new Celtics uniform at the beginning of the spot; and second, a still photo of Chris Paul in his Hornets uniform, which needed to be established because the archival footage used for him was of such poor quality, although the backstory behind the video — Paul scoring 61 points after his grandfather, with whom he was close, passed away at age 61 — was of such high value that the video ought to be included.

These two contemporary exceptions notwithstanding, it is the archive that ironically provides the vector of erasure.

"It's not about the shoes."

For a generation cynical about the tacit promises made in the 1980s and 1990s, namely, that shoe consumption would grant one equivalent talents to those of the star endorser, "It's not about the shoes. It's about what you do in them" turns the responsibility back to the consumer. Arguably, not one of the athletes in the "Becoming Legendary" spot — Ray Allen, Derek Jeter, Chris Paul, Terrell Owens, Andre Ward, Richard Hamilton, Joe Johnson, Marvin Harrison, and Carmelo Anthony — would be considered freakish athletes by the standards of professional sport, but rather those who took moderate athletic gifts and maximized them through hard work.

"It's about what you do in them."

That said, the clause "in them" provides a reminder that even though responsibility has been turned back to the consumer, one's chances in competition certainly improve if sporting a pair of Nikes. So we have a historical referent — Mars Blackmon imploring that it's gotta be the shoes — that serves not only as the entry point to situate this level of the contemporary assemblage but simultaneously as the departure point from which to negate that historical position. We have a reversal of implied obligation from producer to consumer. And, though the erasure of the corporeal Jordan is almost complete, Nike never has to compromise the original message, which is to buy the shoes.

"It's about being who you were born to be."

The scratchy and grainy original home video footage and the editing that reinforces this particular material condition of production — what N. Katherine Hayles would refer to as a "technotext", a text that foregrounds the inscription technology used to produce it — is consonant with a generation that has spent its entire life on camera — in photos, videos, home movies, webcams, cell phones, etc. That there exists video footage of these professional athletes as teens and that clips have been detached from these archival texts to be remixed into a new assemblage paid for by a transnational corporate sponsor does not seem to this generation at all unusual.

Today's youth are used to cutting, pasting, sampling — of disassembling and reassembling other — as their central mode of communication and, dare we say, overarching ontology. And in this commercial, we witness evidence of a reversal from industrial capitalism: while the mining of metals ultimately provided the infrastructural base for industrial manufacture, the post-industrial manufacture of spectacle and its concomitant commodity marketing ultimately provide the basis for the mining of data archives from which sign values may be extracted — presumably at lower marginal cost to the manufacturer — and then assembled anew.

BECOME LEGENDARY

This is not the only mining that will take place, however, and here we may examine more closely the pro forma portion of this corporate outlook. Though the technology and techniques are still in their relative infancy, we should extrapolate somewhat to vision where the emergent ubiquity of online communication takes us.

It is not a significant leap to suggest that vast databases of photo and video imagery combined with the facial recognition technology blossoming in security applications will be used by Nike and others to identify new motors of sign value production in a hybrid of spectaclesimulationsurveillance. Scan for the swoosh, process through neural network analysis, and the future robot historian will identify Jordan by a few degrees of separation as one of the most powerful nodes in the history of netspace.

In the process of becoming legendary, this is how a posthuman religion is born.

Seattle Weather: Calling for (Golden) Showers

Near the end of Seattle's blowout win over Carolina in the NFC Championship game, FOX Sports offered the home televiewer a carefully staged "product integration" featuring a freshly-filled jug of Gatorade being brought out from the bowels of the stadium, purportedly to be dumped on Seattle head coach Mike Holmgren by the players to celebrate the big victory.

This was not by accident. For years, there has been a delightfully "impromptu" tradition of soaking coaches with the sports drink at the end of big wins, beginning with a splash on Bill Parcells in the mid-80s. Gatorade received millions of dollars of free publicity from the stunt over time, and paid big money to ensure that only its products were available on NFL sidelines.

Darren Rovell, ESPN's sports business reporter and author of the book First in Thirst: How Gatorade Turned the Science of Sweat into a Cultural Phenomenon, notes on his blog the benefits that Gatorade received from their sponsorship during the Seattle-Carolina game:

We always see athletes making a great play and then going to back to the sidelines to fill up on some Gatorade. Rarely do we see it the other way around. Well, it happened Sunday night. Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith was shown on the sidelines drinking Gatorade (from a bottle, not a cup) and then moments later, Smith rumbled in for the team's only touchdown in the first half. Not a bad in-game commercial. It's times like these when people at Gatorade realize that that $45 million a year that they pay the NFL for sideline rights, is clearly a bargain.

Now with this being the first NFC Championship win in Seattle's franchise history, one might think that they would be so excited that they would want to maintain tradition and give Holmgren the end-of-game Gatorade shower treatment. The staged TV shot of the fresh jug seemed poised for such a moment.

But there was no splash. Instead, players ran onto the field, shooks hands with their opponents, and celebrated with one another.

Could it be that the hackers were tired of having their ecstatic moment exploited for financial gain? That once the shower went from spontaneous act to planned celebratory moment to scripted product placement opportunity, they decided to resist?

If so, then the following becomes problematic. Upon returning from commercial, FOX play-by-play lead Joe Buck segued back to the action with "No Gatorade bath for Mike Holmgrem, but…" and though I don't have the rest of the words verbatim, mentioned how Seattle was on its way to the Super Bowl.

So now the players' participation in the "marketing opportunity" isn't even required anymore. Between FOX's staged visuals and Buck's commentary, our collective memory fills in the rest.

Highlight Reel: Informatics of Domination

After posting Haraway's thought framework from "A Cyborg Manifesto," I wanted to jot down a few notes as to how I see her interpretation of these "scary new networks" overlapping or meshing with what I have developed here at sportsBabel.

Labor ›› Robotics

When Haraway discusses a shift from labor to robotics (elsewhere in the essay she says that "microelectronics mediates the translations of labour into robotics and word processing"), is the sportocratic equivalent not Rasheed Wallace and his perfectly-assembled soundbite — "Both teams played hard." — which the typing classes then turn into content? Wallace's perfect quality control gives truth to the lie about the nature of professional athletes, who are in fact I3-producing techno-bodies.

Physiology ›› Communications engineering

Gatorade changes from a drink that will provide fatigued athletes with fluid and electrolytes to a circulating image-sign indicating superior athletic performance available as consumptive possibility.

Representation ›› Simulation

Can something be represented that has never taken place? This is the situation in which sport finds itself once we begin to introduce motion capture into movies and videogames. The recombinant nature of fantasy gaming is another postmodern take on the sporting text, the "anterior finality" (cf. Baudrillard) of simulation that irrevocably shapes both product and producer.

Perfection (Heat) ›› Optimization (Noise)

Haraway could be speaking specifically about sabermetrics with these points. Rather than diatribe myself, I will resample a talk from Paul DePodesta, GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers, that I posted earlier:

I was on a quest to find relevant relationships. Usually it wasn't as simple as "if X then Y." I was looking for probabilistic relationships. … We may not always be right but we'd be right a lot more often than we'd be wrong. In baseball, if you win about 60% of your games, you're probably in the playoffs.

One of the other problems is that the traditional metrics and stats used in baseball are muddied with so much noise that just didn't matter that I was having a tough time distilling all the information.

Biology as clinical practice ›› Biology as inscription

Though obsolesced, the administrative numeration found on the extended skin of the sports uniform, which finds its contemporary manifestation in the jersey number tattoo, foreshadows the inscription on the body of DNA recombination and other communications/biotechnological practices.

Soccer and the Romanticization of Globalization

In the latest "Impossible Is Nothing" ad spot for adidas, we see a young boy of some generically Latin descent getting chastised by an older neighbourhood man for apparently being a nuisance as he collects plastic bags from dumpster bins and flows of blowing debris. Our interest is certainly piqued as we wonder why the lad is so resolute in his pursuit of all this trash. The spot comes to its sugary finale when the boy carefully ties all of the bags together to form a pretty decent soccer ball that he happily flicks up over his head with the back of his foot.

While adidas' message of the promise that sport holds is certainly an important one, it must be tempered by the ironic and depthless romanticism in the ad that blinds us to the economic conditions that lead one to create a "real" ball from plastic bags in the first place (Gatorade is equally complicit in a recent spot that celebrates a young [black] boy [read:"from the hood"] who uses a shopping cart as a basketball hoop).

Perhaps I am guilty of an "anthropological gaze" in this case, which implicates the little boy as lacking the First World amenity of a "real" leather ball for play and thus trying to compensate for that lack.

Perhaps.

We must remember, though, that at the end of the day this boy is an actor in a television commercial produced by the American subsidiary of a German-based multinational, which is designed to sell more soccer boots to those consumers who romanticize such an anthropological gaze. It is the depthlessness of the globalization spectacle.

The irony lies is the fact that adidas themselves are moving past the use of "real" balls for soccer: "German ball manufacturer Adidas is to make a presentation to FIFA on Feb. 26, when a chip-laden ball will be used at a test match. If the trial is successful, the ball will be used in the Carling Cup final in Cardiff on Feb. 27."

I somehow doubt that our fictional Juan will find any wireless transmitter chips in the next dumpster he is diving through.

Ali, Papa and the Forty Thieves

Courtesy of adidas

Thoughts on the new adidas campaign:

Impossible is nothing (with the help of CGI).

Nike has already been here, though.

And so has Gatorade.

"Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up" — no matter what gender they are.

Talk about some sort of weird resolution of father-daughter psychoanalytical issues: whale on dad's virtual self for a while.

Remember this guy? "I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me." — Ali Senior has been radically depoliticized over the past few decades, hasn't he?

VirtuAli does not have Parkinson's disease — and he never will.

Rumble, young girl, rumble.

MLK

For a phenom that came to the NBA out of high school and now has three rings to show for it, for a guy that can score at will against anyone and defend a little as well, for a guy that lives in Tinseltown, for chrissakes, Kobe Bryant is not as big a star as he should be. Why don't people like Kobe as much as they should?

Because he was The Man Trying to Replace Michael. And we weren't ready for MJ to be replaced.

It's OK for Tiger Woods to publicly acknowledge that the only person he measures himself against is the equally-loved Jack Nicklaus. But that's because the Golden Bear's run had been over for a while by the time Eldrick brought his prodigious game to Augusta.

When Kobe makes it plain that the only person he measures himself against is Jordan, on the other hand, a platinum hit shits the fan. It's a classic case of prematurely introducing a new product line into the market, when the old one just needed to be re-engineered.

Look at the collective hand-wringing surrounding Michael's comeback. Some people loved it — they wanted a little more Air, but for the Wizards? Others hated it — they didn't want their memories of Jordan to be tarnished by a geezer. Never mind what MJ himself wanted. Do you know of any competitive athlete past their prime who wouldn't give a few months salary to be able to get back onto the court with all the marbles on the line? And we're to deny that of Jordan?

Who the fuck are we?

That's basically the message from Gatorade — albeit more subtly — in its spot featuring the old bald one pulling veteran moves against the fresh-faced flyer: it's OK to let go. We love the old MJ as much as we love the young Air Jordan as much as we love the precocious Tar Heel — and we can keep them all forever.

We need to understand that message, so Michael Jeffrey Jordan can ride off into the sunset on his golf cart. Don't worry: he'll leave behind a career's worth of images and information to never be far from our thoughts and memories again. That's product re-engineering for you.

But now we really will need someone to replace him, though.

Good thing LeBron is coming along at the right time. As long as this kid can play — and if LeBron has balled in MJ's pickup games, then he can play — I would bet that in 50 years he will have a greater legend than Kobe. He has to: the simulacrum precedes him, and that simulacrum is worth big bucks.

Roy Johnson of Fortune magazine (and formerly of Sports Illustrated) wrote an article in 1998 called The Jordan Effect, which suggested that MJ has meant around $10 billion to the economy (a low number in my opinion, but one that's sure to grow in the future). If you buy into the Jordan Effect, then LeBron's simulacrum will be worth around $70 billion in a couple of decades.

Or else.