Mar 24, 2009

That Ole Black Magic

NBA icon and celebrated entrepreneur Earvin "Magic" Johnson has been the poster child for how to successfully transition from being a professional athlete into a meaningful and lucrative post-athletic life. During his playing days for the Los Angeles Lakers Magic stood atop the league, winning five titles in the 1980s, and helping to transform the game from a boutique urban sport into a global phenomena in the process. In my book, were it not for a cat named Michael Jordan, Magic would be the best to ever play the game. His place in the sport's annals is unquestioned. Magic was THE MAN on the court in no uncertain terms.

More recently, Magic has gained a reputation as a very successful businessman. His association with companies like Starbucks, AMC Theaters, and T.G.I. Friday's has helped to create recognizable brand name establishments in the minority communities of several cities throughout the country. Through all of this, Magic has come to be highly regarded in media circles for his business acumen, so much so that he recently released a book, 32 Ways to Be a Champion in Business. While the book's title obviously plays off of his Lakers' jersey number, 32, and his many championship rings, it also describes Magic as both an "entrepreneur" and "community leader."

Through the years, Magic has also become quite visible in political circles, though on this front he has committed some turnovers. Magic endorsed Jim Hahn in the 2001 Los Angeles mayorial race over strong challenger Antonio Villaraigosa. Hahn won the race, aided by a racially provocative drug commercial used against his challenger, but quickly fell out of favor and was soundly defeated by Villaraigosa in the 2005 rematch. By this time, Magic--like Don King, who once walked into the ring with Joe Frazier and left with the victor George Foreman--was now on Villaraigosa's side.

Last year though Magic was a visible supporter of Hillary Clinton in her bid for the White House. I don't have to tell you how that one turned out. As one of the most well known African Americans in the country, Magic, along with a number of other visible African American Clinton supporters, like that cultural slumlord Bob Johnson, was ass-out when it became clear that the nation had decided to go in a different direction and elect its first black president. This was not a good look on Magic's part and not because I think that every black person should automatically support all black candidates just because of their race; quite the contrary. But when you build your name as a celebrity entrepreneur and "community leader" then it would seem to suggest that your political support might fall to a historic African American candidate who himself was formerly a community activist. Yet Magic apparently owed debts of political gratitude to the Clintons that had to be repaid. Such indebtedness left Magic and these other supporters with fried egg on their face when it was clear that Obama would be the victor.

Magic Johnson Enterprises has the motto of "We Are the Communities We Serve." Yet some recent business decisions are starting to generate pointed questions about Magic's real relationship to "the community." This attention is starting to bring some criticisms that are quite different than the seemingly universal public praise he has tended to enjoy on the business front. Recent professional affiliations find Magic in bed with companies like Rent-A-Center, the rent to own furniture stores and Jackson Hewitt, the tax preparers. Rent-A-Center has long been criticized for price gouging, charging their poor, credit challenged customers excessively inflated prices for their goods under a dubious scheme know as "rent to own." Likewise Jackson Hewitt has come under scrutiny for their "Money Now Loan," a excessively high interest tax refund loan that, again, has been criticized for preying on low income minority residents. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that both Rent-A-Center and Jackson Hewitt are operating in a similar manner to those dreadful sub prime mortgage lenders, albeit on a much smaller scale.

In an country where black entrepreneurs have long been stymied by the inequalities of the system, Magic's success is to be lauded. He is undoubtedly a very successful black businessman now. This success is underscored by numerous stories about black professional athletes who have squandered their finances in a variety of ways, both extravagant and frivolous. Further, Magic has succeeded by bringing businesses to minority communities that are especially under served. All in all this appears to be a win win situation for everyone involved, Magic, the community, and the corporate partners. In this case you have both financial success along with social and civic responsibility. What more could you want, right?

Perhaps we can ponder the nature of the businesses that Magic is now endorsing though? Are you really doing anything for "the community" if the corporate interests that you are in business with exploit the poor minorities that populate your customer base? If you are the community that you serve then wouldn't you be more sensitive to such potentially exploitative relationships? In other words, Magic ain't shoppin' at Rent-A-Center, trust me! I doubt seriously if he's getting his taxes prepared by Jackson Hewitt either. Are you serving these people or are you servin' them like the dope dealers who say they are servin' their customers?

I wouldn't be saying all of this if there wasn't this overriding theme of racial empowerment being used to promote Magic's business success. If you say you just want to make money, by all means. But if you promote yourself as a "community leader" then I have expectations that you are actually doing something for the community in question besides ripping them off like everyone else before you has done. The fact that the jackin' is being done now in black face makes it that much more egregious.

I have long felt the same way about media charlatan Tavis Smiley, who was foamin' at the mouth while asking Magic about his mother's peach cobbler--or what it pound cake?--during a recent interview to discuss Magic's book. Tavis has for some years now walked the track for one of the biggest macks in the game, none other than that magnificent pimp known as Walmart. Yet, like Magic, Smiley also promotes himself as a community leader, along with regularly touting his success in business. It could be argued that both Magic and Tavis are leading their communities alright, leading them to be further exploited or better yet, leading them straight to the choppin' block.

What Magic Johnson has done is use his name and the celebrity he developed playing the game of basketball to become a very successful figure in his post NBA life. Considering again that this is the exception and far from the rule, he should be applauded vigorously. I would much rather read about Magic's business success than Latrell Sprewell's boat getting repossessed or Mike Tyson having blown all of his many millions. Yet it is important to be evenhanded in assessing such success. I am less impressed by Magic's overall business acumen. Has he really created anything or has he simply taken advantage of a spectacular NBA career in parlaying his name as a brand, using "the community" as willing dupes while he fattens his own pockets at their expense?

According to Tavis, one must be "accountable" right? Well it's time that we start holding this recent cycle of poverty pimpin' to higher standards. I get leery anytime I hear someone start talking about what they are doing for "the community." That's such a easy hook. As Magic himself likes to say, "don't talk about it, be about it." If you say that you are working for the community than many people give you the benefit of the doubt and unquestionably support you. Yet the history of racism and class manipulation in this society is such that the line between serving and exploiting the community is a very thin line indeed.

Just because the face of the potential exploiters is black doesn't mean that the act of exploitation is any more forgivable. Beware of community entrepreneurs in sheep's clothing. The Willie Dynamites of the world may have dropped their full length fur coats, glass heels, and "Diamond in the Back" Eldorodos from times past, but the re-mixed version can be just as lethal now with the "I'm down for the community" rhetorical hustle if left unchecked.


that dude said...

I agree with 99.9 percent of what you wrote. My only note is that it's hard to make ANY business work, and for Magic to have as many successful businesses as he has - even if other folks are doing the heavy lifting and doing the day to day - is pretty impressive. Just picking that many winners to ride is a feat.

Wm. said...

Rent-A-Center and Jackson Hewitt? That makes him look to be a cynical exploiter and/or the benign face of shameless vulture capitalism. I don't imagine even Magic could modify the nature of their business practices if he was willing to try.

Big Blue Monkey 2: The Quickening said...

When I saw Magic's Rent-A-Center advertisement, I was shocked. When I went searching for reactions, I was equally shocked to find so little reaction.

I'm just about finishing up my own post on the matter, which is a good deal less eloquent than yours, but I wanted to say that I found your insights invaluable, to the point that I felt the need to quote you.

excellent post. the more I think about it, the angrier I get.