You Don’t Know Bo — A Visual Legacy

You Don’t Know Bo (2012)
Directed by Michael Bonfiglio
ESPN 30 for 30 (Season II)

The documentation of an athlete’s performance has been intrinsically connected to competitive sporting since its dawn. Great athletes are remembered because of the number of home runs they could hit in a season or lifetime, the number of yards they rushed, or because of the number of wins they could accrue by KO. In simplest terms, athletes can be reduced to numbers. Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Muhammed Ali, and Tiger Woods all have captivated audiences with their athletic performances in their respective sports but in the end these four have numbers that undoubtedly qualify themselves as G.O.A.T.s. But, not all great athletes live up to their projected numbers or have careers plagued by injuries that prevent them achieving true greatness. In the recent installation of ESPN’s fantastic documentary series 30 for 30 (mentioned previously in my review of This Will Have Been) director Michael Bonfiglio explores the brief yet memorable career of former MLB and NFL player Bo Jackson in his film You Don’t Know Bo. Surveying the mythologies behind Jackson as well as his career as one of a small number of players to participate in more than one professional sport at once, the film provides a glimpse into the puzzlingly shy yet boisterous athlete who was the only person ever selected to play in the NFL Pro Bowl and the MLB All-Star Game.

The film frames Jackson as a superhero figure within the sports world, capable of undaunting acts of both physical power and grace. His tales read like American folklore with stories of a young Bo killing a preachers pig by simply hurling a stone or being able to dunk a stick through a basketball net while still a tween. Although some of his stories are only remembered as hearsay, there are a number of implausible acts captured on film. For instance, there is a memorable photograph of Jackson breaking a MLB maple (or ash) bat over his knee. The photographs, there are several from varying positions, captures Jackson frustrated by striking out while at the plate. I remember these images rather vividly, Jackson was wearing a constricting baby blue Royals uniform which accented his cross-trained conditioned body stands with one knee raised while holding two parts of the MLB issues bat. Although, this act of aggression is inherently disturbing there is also an air of shock and excitement that accompanies his action. Did you hear about the time Bo broke a bat in half?

Aside from Jackson’s natural athletic abilities, he also had the backing of a catchy marketing campaign from Nike to promote a new cross-trainer sneaker in 1989. Employing the simplistic yet neanderthal-like catchphrase “BO KNOWS”, Jackson was photographed and filmed in practically every popular sporting attire possible, from surfing, to cricket, Nascar racer, to hockey player. The ads are particularly interesting in the fact that they were created during a time when multiculturalism seemed attainable, or at least to some. Nike’s campaign pictured Jackson as a new type of “super” athlete, capable of playing any sport, even those who had historically only been played by whites.

Anyone who encountered these ads when they first aired often conjure up the catchphrase “BO KNOWS” before they can think of any of Jackson’s achievements. This is not to say that Jackson could not live up to the marketing hype the same way Jordan was able to but because of the succinct time of his career(s). While playing for the Los Angeles Raiders in 1991 Jackson incurred a hip injury while being tackled by Kevin Walker of the Cincinnati Bengals that ended his football career. After undergoing surgery he played baseball until 1994 but was never the same player he had once been.

The fact that Jackson’s legacy will, for the most part, be remembered by a series of images and tales makes this documentary so compelling. Athletes strive to be the greatest at their sport and a few of those are placed in a designated sports hall of fame where their stats can be compared and analyzed against their peers and current players. Jackson however will never be in a hall of fame due to the short length of his careers and the decline in his performance after his surgery. What is left is a visual legacy of Jackson’s achievements that exist as documentation of the athlete he was, but even these images are incapable of encapsulating the promise fans felt for his future in two of America’s favorite past times.