|Much of the world heaped well deserved praise on NBA superstar Michael Jordan following the announcement of his retirement. But there are several cautionary lessons that can be learned from his career. Jordan's towering fortune and fame profited wealthy white owners, and a few elite superstar black athletes, hid the blatant racism within sport, and sewed more fields of delusions among many young blacks about sports.
Jordan was more than just a once in a lifetime gifted athlete but a fabulous cash cow to the NBA owners, TV executives and corporations. He generated an estimated $100-200 million, or 10 to 20% of the NBA's annual $2 billion revenue. He caused millions more viewers to tune into NBA games which meant millions more in ad revenue, and paved the way for the League's four year $2.64 billion contract with NBC and Turner Network Television in 1997, more than double it's TV money the year before. He boosted ticket sales by $165 million. He bagged $3 billion more for the NBA off the merchandising of basketball paraphernalia. He topped this all with $10 billion more for corporations in the sale of books, movies, men's fashion wear, toiletries, and athletic gear.
While this brought Jordan and a handful of NBA superstars wealth beyond their imagination, it masked the fact that the average NBA player's pay was much closer to the league's minimum average scale of $275, 000 than to the pay of the multi-millionaire superstars. It also hid the naked exploitation of many of the NBA's grunts who are cut, traded, often harassed, and intimidated by owners, coaches, and managers, and eventually dumped from the league with little savings or career prospects.
Although Jordan was the NBA's top attraction, he was still an employee of the Chicago Bulls and made no management decisions. He was not consulted by the NBA owners about policy during their player's lockout. Although blacks make up 79 percent of the players in the NBA, 70 percent in the NFL, and 20 percent in major league baseball the chance of any of them owning, running, managing and working in a non-player capacity for pro teams after their playing days are over are dismal. In 1998 there were no black owners of any football, basketball or baseball teams.
There are few black managers in baseball or general managers in basketball, and the virtual absence of black head coaches in pro football is an abomination. Between 1996 and 1998, 21 NFL teams hired head coaches, none were black. There was one black team doctor in baseball, none in football, and only a handful of black team trainers in all the major sports combined. The plight of the black sports agent is even worse. In almost all cases black athletes are represented by white agents.
But this is not how the big money is made anyway for non-players. In 1996, pro owners bagged $14 billion in product marketing, franchising, leasing and licensing fees. Yet they turned a deaf ear to complaints that they've done nothing to create more opportunities for blacks to get a piece of that lucrative action.
Fields of delusions
Jordan did not graduate with his class from the University of North Carolina. But he is not the only black pro athlete without a degree. The report card on the graduation rate for black athletes at the fifty NCAA Division I schools is a national disgrace. During the 1990's, the majority of these schools graduated less than one-third of their black players. Many athletes waltz through three or four years at these colleges and still emerge as educational cripples taking a curriculum jammed with physical education, crafts, recreation, and piles of general studies courses.
Yet thousands of young blacks fervently believe that they can ride the same super fast track that Jordan took to the pinnacle of the sports world. This is a myth. The chance of a black high school athlete making it in major pro sports is one in 18,000. Only about 2 percent of the estimated 10,000 college football seniors are drafted by the NFL. The odds are 250 to 1 that the wannabe Jordans will ever don an NBA jersey.
NBA owners, TV and corporate executives, should've bowed down in gratitude to Jordan for delivering the goods for them. But the real goods such as education, professional security, business opportunities, and confronting the rampant racism in sport remain just as elusive as ever for the aspiring Air Jordans.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black. email:firstname.lastname@example.org
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