An Iconic Global Athlete as an Agent of Sports Diplomacy

By Fadil Elobeid|June 3, 2020|News|0 comments

By Dr J Simon Rofe & Dr Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff

On Tuesday 26 May the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy (CISD) held a virtual roundtable on Michael Jordan and basketball’s global growth. The event was the capstone for the CISD project, ‘Basketball Diplomacy in Africa: An Oral History From SEED Project to the Basketball Africa League (BAL),’ an Information & Knowledge Exchange IKE Project funded by SOAS University of London. 

We came up with the idea as this spring’s coronavirus pandemic forced so many to self-isolate and quarantine at home, including the global sports ecosystem. Bereft of live action and new sports-centric content, many of us seized upon the recent Michael Jordan documentary, ‘The Last Dance,’ a 10-part series addressing the basketball player’s final season with the National Basketball Association (NBA)’s Chicago Bulls. Moreover, it was available on Netflix’s global streaming platform within 48-hours of each episode’s U.S. broadcast on sports network ESPN providing a level of global access. The series provided a unique opportunity to use the hook of a nearly simultaneous sports cultural experience (watching ‘The Last Dance’ episodes) to dig more deeply into how Michael Jordan, ‘The Last Dance,’ and Jordan Brand served as forces of globalization and how this has impacted understandings of sport diplomacy around the world.  

Jordan is an unlikely revolutionary, but one whose drive and ability to market his image and brand changed basketball, the NBA, and wider culture around the globe. One of the greatest players of all time, he racked up six NBA Championships with the Chicago Bulls, more than a dozen NBA All-Star appearances, numerous Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards, and two Olympic gold medals with Team USA (1984, 1992). Jordan’s role as part of the original United States’ Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Games captured imaginations around the world and inspired generations of players and spectators, alongside his 15-season NBA career played a hugely significant role globalizing the league and driving boys and girls from all six continents to ‘Be Like Mike.’ 

More than 60 people from around the world joined hosts Lindsay and Simon for a fascinating conversation about Jordan’s role globalizing the game and its implications along the sports-diplomacy nexus. Alexander Wolff, a Contributing Editor at U.S. weekly Sports Illustrated and Author of The Audacity of Hoop, spoke of how Jordan helped the NBA market itself in China in the 1990s. Wolff, then a Sports Illustrated basketball writer, covered the rise of Jordan in Asia and articulated how Jordan, more than any other NBA player of his era, was a good fit for Chinese basketball fans and audience. ‘Grant Hill lacked the quality of a king,’ Wolf said, comparing the quietly spoken Duke alumni touted as the ‘next’ Micheal Jordan when he entered the NBA in 1994. ‘A star must have a regal temperament of a king,’ and thus why Jordan was in some ways so appealing. 

Sports Connect Africa Founder and CEO Cynthia Mumbo, a former Executive Committee member of the Kenyan Basketball Federation and basketball player, articulated Jordan’s appeal as a symbol for young Kenyans. She recalled watching Jordan’s plays on weekly television shows like ‘NBA Action,’ the only access point she and other Kenyans (and Africans) had to the NBA in the 1980s and early 1990s. ‘It’s amazing how a 30-minute show once-a-week had such a great influence,’ Mumbo said. Such mediatization made Jordan, and the NBA, more global. ‘Jordan’s influence was significant,’ she said. ‘There’s a direct road between him and [today’s] Basketball Africa League,’ the first pan-African professional sports league set to launch this year. Mumbo’s comments particularly resonated in light of the broader work of CISD’s Basketball Diplomacy in Africa project and newly released Oral History Archive exploring the place of the game on the African continent. 

Haresh Deol, Co-founder and Editor of Twentytwo13, is a longtime expert on southeast Asia’s sports scene. Deol pointed out the role of Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in opening up basketball to wider audiences. He noted how in Malaysia, a country with several religious, ethnic, and political divides, the sport was mostly played by the ethnic Chinese community. But the Bulls and Jordan’s brand helped to redefine many kids’ orientations as they sought to “Be Like Mike” and were drawn to the game. ‘It is thanks to icons like them [Jordan and the Bulls] that the status of the sport was raised to new heights,’ Deol said. 

If the person and persona of Jordan did much to globalize the game and the NBA, his reach was amplified exponentially as the world’s most marketed athlete of his time. Dr Jean Williams, Professor of Sports at University of Wolverhampton, noted how Jordan’s story is one of labor. ‘Michael Jordan owned his own labour, and therefore could endorse lucrative collaborations, such as Air Jordans with Nike,’ she said.

‘The Last Dance presents us with a tragedy. It is Shakespearean in its shape. We see the rise of a talented young man to become the leading star of his team, and an icon of the NBA as a franchise, promoting the sport of basketball worldwide, with scenes in France of the excitement generated by Jordan. Having risen to the height of his fame, and sporting excellence, the tragedy is that Jordan owns his own labour, but not the means of production that makes his talent so valuable.’  

Williams pointed out how Air Jordans were an aspirational product, another attractive point that drew so many around the world to the brand Jordan built. ‘Transcendence is the key message of Air Jordan’s, a product which achieves the brilliant marketing strategy of selling not leather or polymer or even shoes, but sells the concept of air, and by extension of transcending a given situation,’ she said. This helped open up basketball. ‘Clothing can popularise a sport beyond those who actively support and play,’ Williams said, another dimension of Jordan’s global impact.

The theme of marketability and image was the focus of remarks by brand management expert Luke Jarman, Founder and Director of Eudaiation. Timing and tastemakers helped enable Jordan and his #Jumpman brand to dominate and increase cultural reach beyond sport, Jarmon argued. ‘This has helped brands today,’ he said, and pointed to the sports-lifestyle cult that Jordan Brand has built, fusing sports with fashion such as its recent collaboration with French football club Paris Saint-Germain. ‘But today, will an athlete ever have the same impact globally that Jordan did,’ Jarman asked? 

That is an important question to consider when weighing the impact of a globally marketed athlete like Jordan and the sports-diplomacy nexus (based on the troika of Communication, Representation, and Negotiation that occurs in or around the court). It is no coincidence that esteemed Diplomatic Historian Walter LaFeber published ‘Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism’ in 1999 as Jordan enjoyed the first year of his full retirement. By then Jordan had become the personification of American globalization in an era of McDonald’s, Hollywood, Coca-Cola, and the U.S. Dream Team – nee the American ‘Dream’ something that is aspirational, and ephemeral to a point, but importantly has ‘global appeal’. 

Finally, Dr Robert Edelman, Professor of History at UC San Diego, assessed Jordan’s legacy in the historical context. ‘Jordan is a post Cold War athlete,’ he said. Edelman pointed out how in the Soviet Union, basketball was a multinational endeavor with the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia playing upon their strong basketball cultural heritage to assert their own role within the USSR.  And while Jordan, the Bulls, and the NBA have done so much over the years to globalize basketball, Edelman urged caution in evaluating their role. ‘Basketball still suffers globally because the Americans do not take the FIBA World Cup seriously,’ he said. ‘Only once they do will basketball become the world’s major team sport.’ 

The roundtable made clear the important role Jordan played as an informal arbiter of U.S. soft power through the cultural exchange facilitated by sports diplomacy. And Jordan’s notorious refusal to be political in any way enabled him to serve as a sort of blank slate upon which cultures around the world could project their own preferred values or visions of the United States through basketball and the basketball lifestyle brand that Jordan helped usher in through his various endorsement deals (fashion, music, food, sneakers). 

Catch the roundtable replay here. We also invite you to join us on Twitter where we’ll continue the conversation via #jumpmandiplomacy #sportsdiplomacy.

At the start of the roundtable, participants were asked to write one word that came to mind when thinking about Michael Jordan; these are the results.

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