Growing up on the south side of Chicago, it was nearly impossible to not “want to be like mike”. Far too small, or human, to fly as his highlight reels suggested, we settled for attaching his last name to every clutch jump shot that fell in every backyard, alley and gymnasium. Prior to the Bulls’ first title, Michael Jordan was a star. As the championship parades in Grant Park became as much of a summertime staple as shootings, car clubs and cookouts, Jordan, the mononym, would ascend to the city’s black holy trinity alongside Dr. King and its first black mayor, Harold Washington; truly rarefied air. Fast forward to 2011, where the internet age has long since revealed His Airness to be an ass, as the proliferation of digital technology has completely skewed our view of athletes and ultimately compounded their daily pressures.
Retiring for the third and final time in 2003 during the dawn of the decade, the combination of free time and advances in social media proved to be damning for Jordan’s once-teflon image. His divorce from wife of 17 years, Juanita Jordan played out in front of the world for 4 of them, culminating in a then-record, 168 million dollar settlement in 2006. Shortly thereafter, a lawsuit and paternity case citing infidelity as old as his marital union became fodder for the burgeoning blogosphere. 2009 saw his character further decimated virally, via rapper, Chamillionaire’s YouTube’d accounts of being told by the icon himself, “I don’t take pictures with niggas”, then following his reticence with an offer to be photographed for a sum of $15,000. This, coming on the heels of the widely viral, Hall of Fame acceptance speech in which he managed to issue a one-on-one challenge to the marginal Bryon Russell (his rival of the ’97 and ’98 finals), discredit the Bulls organization (whom built his supporting casts) for their role in his six titles, and in his most famous moment of revenge, honored (Charlie Murphy punchline) Harvest “Leroy” Smith in person, for making the Laney High School basketball team in place of him. Throw in his infamous sartorial sensibility and you’re got a half-billion dollar public relations nightmare on your hands.
Now imagine His Airness, 22 years younger, hundreds of millions of dollars poorer, with the same self-inflicted media circus being played out 24 hours a day, for millions of viewers within 140 character tweets, viral videos, and blogs, in every building with a wireless router. I don’t know that the Bulls still win six rings in eight years, nor do Nike, Gatorade, Rayovac, Hanes and McDonalds still hang their hat on the Air Jordan brand. It’s safe to say that the “pressure makes diamonds” analogy holds true in the face of Jordan’s ability to overcome 3 consecutive years of playoff losses and achieve the league’s first three-peat since the sixties. In an era where stories of his infidelities never grew past rumor, million dollar gambling debts were only covered in a handful of print publications, and speculations surrounding his father’s murder were played out on local televised news, his resolve garnered championships but still resulted in retirement after only eight seasons in the NBA.
At 26, after eight seasons in the NBA, LeBron James basketball skills have made him a marketing phenom, yet rumors of his mother and fiancée’s respective sexual escapades and backlash from The Decision have made him part blogosphere villain/part Twitter punchline. Following every defeat suffered by the LeBron-led Miami Heat, sportswriters, analysts and barbershops abound picked his game to shreds, while blogs proudly paraded pictures of his mother’s rumored tenderoni of the moment. What if, in addition to TMZ-esque paparazzi documenting Jordan’s every adulterous move, he had to shoulder highlights of his greatest on-court failures going viral in real-time to the tune of 700,000 views in a week (see the Bulls’ Taj Gibson’s recent playoff dunk on Miami’s Dwyane Wade)? When print was king, and ESPN was a solitary network, the 13-footer he missed to lose game 2 of the ’86 playoffs against the Celtics was a fleeting memory awash in his record 63 point performance. Given the premium presently placed upon virally distributed lowlights befalling celebs, commonly referred to as “FAILS”, who’s to say Mike would’ve handled the pressure any better than modern-day pariah, LeBron?
In the heat (pun intended) of the recently concluded NBA season that saw humble, hometown hero, Derrick Rose of Jordan’s Bulls become the league’s youngest MVP ever, LeBron James became its greatest villain. Defying detractors, many rightful in their criticism of Miami’s big three, James led his team to the finals and posted an MVP-caliber season. Yet, as year one of his major market experiment with fellow All-Stars Wade and Chris Bosh, yields another parade-free summer, I don’t know what’s worse, his disappointment or his Twitter timeline. According to General Sentiment, James led the NBA this season in Twitter Impact values, averaging 6,400 daily mentions, most of which on my own timeline search of “LeBron” feature any of the following subjects: his lack of championship hardware, his hairline, his mother’s sex partners, his fiancee’s sex partners, Scottie Pippen and homosexually suggestive banter regarding any pairing (or trio) featuring he, Wade and/or Bosh. Even the aforementioned Derrick Rose, a virtual saint by comparison, couldn’t escape the blogosphere as the Memphis Commercial Appeal dug up a variety of documents challenging his academic integrity at the University of Memphis, and validity of test scores needed to graduate from Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy. Athletes have always faced the sting of off-court drama, but our beloved heroes of the past didn’t have to live in fear of misplaced text messages & emails, candid camera phones, and MacBook private investigators.
From the utilitarian perspective, an all-access pass into the real lives and identities of athletes can work in the public’s best interest if it encourages them to acknowledge their audience all times. Though ultimately prohibitive to the potential hedonism afforded by pro sports salaries, this perpetual magnifying glass may renew our athletes’ turn as role models if adhered to. This present-day scenario is not however, without its flaws, as the game itself has never been more scrutinized from professional analyst to comment thread troll. The ability for a player to miss a clutch basket, and have it become the topic of conversation across as many as ten cable networks and thousands of internet outposts forces today’s star to have a leather hide, in comparison to his more mortal predecessors.
David Giles is a graphic designer, creative consultant & musician hailing from Chicago, IL and currently residing in Brooklyn, NY. Since 2008, he’s performed his music all over the country as one-half of hip hop band, The Paxtons, having most recently released 2010′s The Manhattan Project to modest acclaim around the blogosphere. This summer will see the release of their latest offering, Avenue: A. As the managing partner of GoldStandard Creative, David oversees a variety of multimedia projects, ranging from web design to video production, from concept to completion for national clientele.