Edited by J. Scott.
Michael Jordan is arguably the most significant athlete of the past 35 years. From his exploits at the University of North Carolina in the early-1980s to his two stints as a player in the National Basketball Association with the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan’s name is synonymous with excellence, greatness, and evolution. Off the court, Michael Jordan’s signature shoes rake in millions of dollars for Nike each year (1), further capitalizing on his hard work, dedication, and overall appeal. It is hard to name another athlete who has made such an impact on the sport he played, as well as the commerce he generated, as Jordan.
There are fans around the world who know Michael Jordan as a player, as a pitchman, or both. There are fans who watched him play shooting guard for the Chicago Bulls, watched him win Most Valuable Player awards, and watched him win NBA championships. There are fans who wear Air Jordans, who will literally wait outside of shopping malls and shoe stores for days prior to an Air Jordan shoe release (2) and who will contend that Michael Jordan is the most important athlete of their generation. All of this, and more, is to emphasize the value, relevance, longevity, and importance of Michael Jordan as an athlete, a human being, a brand, and an international icon.
Social media was born in the mid-90s with the formation of Classsites.com, a website which allowed classmates of years past to reconnect with each other (3). Sites such as MySpace, Blackplanet, and others followed and allowed users to create profiles and to illustrate their personalities on a virtual plane. Whether the personalities were authentic representations of themselves offline, or whether their personalities were actually inauthentic, anyone with a dial-up connection and a computer could create something to share with the world.
As the 21st century progressed, so did the forms of social media. Facebook came onto the scene, and later came Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and others. Social media evolved and more people came along for the ride. Communicating socially meant communicating through social media. Gone were the days of sending letters to a pen pal; now you sent direct messages (widely known as DMs) to someone whether you knew them or not. Instead of spending $25, $50, or $100 on a ticket to a sporting event for the chance to see one’s favorite player do something amazing, one could simply download the Vine app, and watch said player “do it for the Vine” and keep all money in their pocket. It is under these circumstances, with these factors in play, along with others because, let’s be real, there are so many to count and only so much time, that the Michael Jordan crying meme was born. The meme is used by social media users worldwide for purposes ranging from someone suffering defeat, to embarrassment, to disappointment; any feeling that conjures up failure is prone to the Michael Jordan crying meme treatment (4).
Michael Jordan did not compete in the era of present-day social media; therefore, the public will never know how Jordan would have fared had he experienced the scrutiny that comes the way of the modern athlete of the 21st century. Despite not competing during that time, the image of Michael Jordan can be found in various images throughout social media, arguably no more prevalent than the meme of Michael Jordan crying at the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts on September 11, 2009 (5). For some fans, the moment was to celebrate the exploits of arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time, but one of the greatest athletes who ever competed in sports. For other fans, it was an opportunity to take a moment that was authentic and turn it into something else with a myriad of interpretations. In the lens is where the Michael Jordan crying face was born. This article seeks to examine social media’s influence on the birth of the MJ crying meme, as well as events that, unintentional or otherwise, contribute to the meme becoming such an integral part of social media and pop culture.
According to Merriam-Webster (6), social media is defined as forms of electronic communication through which users can create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content. Leung, Bai, and Stahura (7) cited studies which stated that 65% of U.S. adult internet users use social networking sites, more than twice the percentage reported in 2011 (8), and that 43% of online adults use social networking sites daily. Constantinidies and Fountain (9) stated that social media included blogs, forums and bulletin boards, and social networking sites. Two of the social networking sites which are prevalent throughout this writing (Twitter and Facebook) possess staggering numbers of users (10). Despite Twitter reporting that the number of monthly active users dropped from 307 million to 305 million in the fourth quarter of 2015 (11), the fact remains that over 300 million people actively use one single social media platform.
Facebook, founded in 2004, has 1.59 billion active users as of December 31, 2015 with approximately 83.6% of daily active users being outside of the United States and Canada (12). An additional social media website, Instagram, was founded in 2010 and bought out by Facebook 2 years later for $1 billion (13). Luckerson (13) wrote that Instagram averaged roughly 30 million active users a month before the acquisition in 2012. One year later, there were over 100 million users and, as of 2015, over 400 million active users (14). Of the three websites, Instagram is the youngest, as it was founded in 2010. With the sheer number of active users the three social media sites possess, along with the influence of popular culture in modern society, it is ideal that social media and athletics have a consistent and visible relationship or, at the least, the ingredients for a consistent and visible relationship. All three of these social media platforms came after significant players and moments had passed in the NBA including players such as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson; and before moments such as the formation of the first Dream Team, and the NBA dress code.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are two primary participants of the most-watched NCAA Men’s Basketball championship in history, the 1979 NCAA men’s basketball national championship between the Indiana State Sycamores and the Michigan State Spartans (15). They went on to duel for years as the stars of the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers respectively. Between 1980 and 1989, the two teams combined for 8 of 10 NBA championships (16) with Bird and Magic earning between them MVP for five regular seasons (17) and five NBA Finals MVPs. From these numbers alone, their contributions to the game of basketball are undeniable and justify why some refer to their time as the rivalry that changed the NBA (18) and why some state their days of playing were the best of times (15). Larry Bird and Magic Johnson dazzled fans around the country and contributed to the NBA adopting live television for the NBA Finals (at one time, the NBA Finals were on tape delay). They kept sportswriters busy with plenty of copy for newspapers, magazines and television, but Larry Bird and Magic Johnson did not compete under the scrutiny and ever-watchful eye of social media.
In April of 1989, a ban on NBA basketball players from playing in the Olympic Games was lifted (20). Prior to this time, the United States men’s basketball team finished third place in the Olympics in Seoul, Korea. While the team featured future hall of famers such as David Robinson and Mitch Richmond, they were, at that time, not NBA basketball players and it showed when they played against teams from other countries that featured professional basketball players. The gold medal winners in 1988, the Soviet Union, featured Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis, two decorated players from their country who later went on to play in the NBA (21). After the ban was lifted, the United States put together what is arguably the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled in international competition which came to be known as The Dream Team (20). The team was led by 11 future Hall of Famers and a future Hall of Fame coach. When the Dream Team was formed, it consisted of 8 regular season MVPs, 8 NBA Finals MVPs, dozens of All-Star Game participants and a two-time NBA champion head coach. As Whitaker (19) wrote, “dominating wasn’t as important as winning. The idea was to dazzle, to put on a display of American might so awe-inspiring that the best our rivals could hope for was a silver medal. Or, even better, Michael Jordan’s autograph[J2] ” (page 60). The combination of players, coaching staff, and the collective mindset of the team encompassed the scene for the Dream Team and while the media were at a fevered pitch, the Dream Team did not compete under the scrutiny and ever-watchful eye of social media.
Neither of these events happened during the social media era; the participants were at the peak of their athletic powers prior to the social media craze, and none of their exploits were captured in real time. Instead, they all had the luxury of, at the very least, waiting for hours when newspapers and television news circulated of their exploits. The very quickest turnaround time was by radio.
In October of 2005, the NBA instituted a dress code for all of its players (22). In the dress code, players were told they had to wear business casual attire while participating in team and NBA activities (23). Spears elaborated that activities included arriving at games, departing games, conducting interviews, and making promotional appearances. Eligon (22) wrote that players had the following requirements under the business casual dress code: collared dress shirts or turtlenecks; dress slacks, khaki pants, or dress jeans; and dress shoes or boots or “other presentable shoes” with socks. For players who were not playing in a game, but were on the bench, they were required to wear a sports coat. Players were prohibited from wearing headgear, t-shirts, team jerseys, chains, pendants, or medallions. Players were also prohibited from wearing sunglasses indoors.
Eligon (22) wrote that any players, or teams, that violated the dress code were subject to fines and possible suspension for repeated violations. While there was resistance when the dress code was introduced, Spears (23) mentioned that the dress code, as well as the attitudes of various players in regard to the dress code, relaxed over time. Players began to embrace the style change (24) while requirements such as sport coats were quietly removed. While there was much contention from both the players and the league itself, the NBA dress code was instituted during a time of social media when only one of the three media forms mentioned earlier was in existence (Facebook was founded one year prior to the dress code, in 2004). Twitter and Instagram had yet to surface, and one can only imagine the amount of coverage the NBA dress code would have received had it been covered in real time via social media.
While these events did not take place under the scrutiny and ever-watchful eye of social media, one event did: the 2009 Pro Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony. The 2009 Pro Basketball Hall of Fame inductees included 3 members from the 1992 Dream Team--Michael Jordan, David Robinson, and John Stockton. The fourth was former NBA player and longtime Utah Jazz head coach, Jerry Sloan. As Irvine (25) wrote, the ceremony for this class was so anticipated that it was moved to a room with over twice the capacity of the normal Hall of Fame venue. Arguably the star of the festivities, Michael Jordan, was the final inductee of the evening and was overcome with emotion before he gave his speech (26). Wojnarowski continued when he wrote about the message in Jordan’s words and, instead of a night of celebration, it turned into a night of settling old scores. Jordan took exception to a former player’s taunts during the time Jordan was mulling a comeback to professional basketball in the mid-90s (26). Jordan also took exception to a former head coach referring to him as a con man, implying that Jordan would be friendly with opposing players off the court in an effort to gain a psychological edge when they played on the court (27). While social media were not present at the time of Jordan’s dominance on the basketball court, they were present to witness his emotion at the event. Subsequently, users of social media were ready to remind anyone with a social media profile all about it.
Forget the stories about being cut from the Laney High School basketball team, or being ignored by teammates in the 1985 All-Star Game, or feeling disrespected by a former opponent on the basketball coach, or a former head coach. People did not need, nor did they want, to remember that. People wanted to remember the Michael Jordan crying face. The 2009 Pro Basketball Hall of Fame provided just that image (4).
Draymond Green, a forward for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, earned his first trip to the NBA All-Star Game in 2016. During an interview aired on TNT, he said the thing that kept him from crying on television upon hearing the announcement was that he did not want to become the new Michael Jordan crying face (28). Green’s teammate, 2015 NBA Most Valuable Player and Carolina Panthers fan, Stephen Curry, joined in on the fun on his Twitter page by pounding the Carolina Panthers drum with the MJ crying face superimposed in the center of the drum.
Memes of the MJ crying face pop up throughout social media on a daily basis. Super Bowl 50, an event watched by 111.9 million viewers on television (29), gave millions of social media users an opportunity to implement the meme on the Carolina Panthers, the losing team of the Super Bowl. The number of viewers made Super Bowl 50 the third most-watched event in television history (29) and the number did not account for the out-of-home viewers, fans that watched the game at bars and restaurants. Bill Murray, one of the most well-known actors in the world and a fan of the Xavier Musketeers, was at the second round matchup between the Wisconsin Badgers and the Xavier Musketeers of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament (30). He received the MJ crying face treatment after the Badgers defeated the Musketeers with a three-point basket at the buzzer.
Thompson (31) wrote that a spokesperson of Michael Jordan confirmed that Jordan is aware of the meme and has no problem with it. The spokesperson also noted that they had not seen anyone using it to promote commercial interests and that they are monitoring that aspect of the meme. The person who took the photograph, Stephan Savoia, a photographer of the Associated Press, had no idea the photograph he took became a meme (5). Savoia has photographed numerous events over his years as a photographer including NFL games, the Olympics, and the World Series (5). However, he is now known through the internet as the man who took the picture of Michael Jordan crying and social media users attaching the face any time athletes, coaches, or other sports figures lose a contest (5). With over 1 billion active users between the three social media sites alone, it is safe to say that as long as sporting events continue and as long as there must be a winner and a loser, the crying face is here to stay.