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Jordan's a wonder, but even he questions heroes as role models

Michael Jordan, a 28-year-old basketball player with the Chicago Bulls, is the City of Broad Shoulders' latest hero. Even in the intense, slightly unbelievable athleticism of professional basketball, he does things that make you gasp. Many knowledgeable judges reckon he is the most thrilling player ever to grace the court. Columnist George Will has suggested, tongue only half in cheek, that (along with such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright and Aaron Copland) Jordan's face should grace high-denomination dollars.

In previous years, Jordan has had to play in a Bulls team that collapsed when the going got tough _ and in the National Basketball Association's play-offs, thegoing gets very tough indeed. This year, however, the Bulls are playing the Los Angeles Lakers for the championship.

Professional basketball, more than any other American sport, is dominated by blacks. Since to play professional basketball at all you need great discipline, and to play it at Jordan's level you need extraordinary flair and imagination, it is hardly surprising that the great search for "role models" for black children should have fastened on the Bulls' star. Since Jordan is intelligent and articulate, notable for good sportsmanship and devoted to charitable work (though without ever seeming cloyingly goody-goody about it), he is an obvious choice.

There is, however, a catch _ two catches, actually. The first is Jordan's association with Nike, America's leading maker of sneakers. Jordan has been endorsing Nike products since 1984: the Air Jordan shoe is Nike's best-selling line. He is not alone; other black heroes like filmmaker Spike Lee and John Thompson, the basketball coach at Georgetown University, also endorse Nike products.

What is wrong with that? According to Jesse Jackson, black America's most popular politician and a basketball fan, a lot. Nike, he argues, is promoting an "ethos of mindless materialism" by encouraging black children to buy sneakers (the latest Air Jordan costs $125) that they cannot afford. That sounds like killjoyism taken to the limit, but Jackson has a point.

It is not as if inner-city children buy just one pair of sneakers; the pressure from the street is to keep up with the latest fashions. Some youngsters own as many as 50 pairs of sneakers; one 14-year-old boy told the Washington Post he spent $2,000 a year on shoes.

You do not need to be a genius to work out one of the most likely ways in which some inner-city youngsters come by such sums: It is by selling drugs. Some drug dealers use sneakers as a way of recruiting youngsters to their gangs; some gangs identify themselves by the sneakers they wear, or accept stolen sneakers as payment for drugs. There have even been incidents where people have been murdered for their high-fashion basketball shoes.

Nike, to be fair, makes sure that its role-model endorsers like Jordan appear in advertisements warning kids off drugs and encouraging them to stay in school. But Jackson is entitled to wonder whether those messages are as strong as the ones coming from the street.

The bigger catch is in the very idea of role models. Behind the search for role models lies the assumption that only great people such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Jordan himself are worthy of emulation. When those idols are found to have feet of clay _ andeveryone who draws breath does _ the pain of disenchantment can be profound.

Jordan himself knows the pressure that role-modelling puts on him: "I'm not a perfect person," he has said. He agrees with Charles Barkley, another NBA star, that the most useful role models for childrenare not heroes like himself but their parents.

There is another drawback to role models. The majority of children have no chance of fame on the basketball court, or anywhere else. The veneration of sportsmen and women subtly denigrates more mundane but realistic goals _ like getting a steady job.

What blacks need is not superstars but economic opportunity; and, as two recent sets of studies by the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute have shown (as if the point needed laboring), anyone who thinks that they have such opportunity in the same measure as whites is deluding himself.

None of this should be taken as an excuse to denigrate Jordan's talent. But it is a shame that America's obsession with sports means that his kind of talent is celebrated more than that of other men and women.

As his city prepared for the NBA finals, Chicago magazine ran an article on Cyrus Colter, who in his long life has been one of Chicago's leading black lawyers, academics and public servants, and who, when most men would have put on the slippers, took to writing award-winning novels, short stories and poems. His has been an extraordinary tale; it is probably known to fewer than 1 percent of the young blacks who worship Michael Jordan.

1991 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. Distributed by Special Features/Syndication Sales

Reprinted from the Economist magazine.