Michael Jordan at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 2017. (Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

An Ode to the Gaffe

Why Michael Jordan Can’t Mess Up Even When He Messes Up

West Wing Writers
6 min readMay 16, 2024


There are many things Michael Jordan can do that you cannot. He can place an orange spherical object into a tall hole from 50 feet away. He can stop a seven-foot-tall man from doing the same from two feet away. He can also jump, straight up in the air, the height of an eight-year-old boy. A tall one.

But there is one thing that both you and Michael Jordan are capable of doing. In fact, it is something that all of us can do. And that is to mangle a public speaking opportunity.

Michael Jordan’s gaffe happened at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill — best known as “The Worst Place on Earth,” according to a random unbiased sample of Duke alumni. (Disclosure: Duke is my alma mater, which biases me toward schools that are good.) It was March 4th, 2017, halftime at the UNC-Duke basketball game. The score was 48–46, Carolina. Jordan was there to tell the crowd that the Tar Heel football team — a group of athletes that nobody was there to see — would start wearing Jordan Brand uniforms the following season. And he wanted to express that for UNC, there were no bounds to what they could achieve. Thankfully for him, there are plenty of clichés that convey this. “The sky’s the limit.” “The world is your oyster.” “Your future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.”

He did not opt to use any of these.

“It’s always great to come home,” he began. “In the thirty-some years I’ve been away from the university, I’ve learned a lot about business and about life.” He went on. “I wish you guys nothing but the best. The ceiling is the roof. Let’s make it happen. Let’s keep moving forward.”

In the room, there was no sign that anything had gone wrong. The uproar was noisy. Students screamed and clapped. Jordan’s raw charisma was more than enough to rile up the crowd. But online — particularly on X, formerly known as Twitter, and best known as “The Worst Place on Earth,” according to a random unbiased sample of everyone — the reactions were unforgiving.

And the reactions weren’t just siphoned to social media. For a brief moment in the sun — which may or may not exist according to the UNC Chapel Hill Department of Physics and Astronomy — the gaffe was everywhere.

(Sorry, one more sidebar on this. It’s worth mentioning that the sky is an especially important earthly feature to students who attend UNC Chapel Hill. It is the perennial source of their self-proclaimed divine authority, as implied by the student body’s favorite question: “If God is not a Tar Heel, why is the sky Carolina Blue?” The question is strictly rhetorical. You can try to explain light waves to them, but they’re not exactly known for going to class.)

Anyway: the Washington Post began their headline, “Michael Jordan shakes the world.” Buzzfeed declared, “Nothing Will Again Be The Same.” Vice spoke to an architect for a fact-check, and CBS consulted a Duke engineer, presumably because a UNC one could not be trusted. (Last one, I promise.)

The American treasure that is the fast-food chain Cook Out got involved, advertising their endless milkshake flavor permutations through MJ’s fumble. Etsy artists incorporated the line into wall decor. A man named Tyke T released an eponymous song.

In short, riffing on Michael Jordan’s mess-up became everyone’s favorite pastime, and there were no signs of stopping. At least, until two weeks later, when a young, bawling Northwestern fan learned that his team was worse than basketball powerhouse Gonzaga, creating a March Madness meme for the ages. However, for those fourteen days of viral limbo, it’d be understandable if Jordan were embarrassed.

But focusing on the discomfort of a gaffe misses its upside. Because first and foremost, public speakers want their remarks to be remembered. And as many more people than Jordan can attest, there are few things more memorable than a mistake.

In fact, less than a week prior to ceiling-gate, a few auditors from PricewaterhouseCoopers accidentally shocked America when they handed actor Warren Beatty the wrong envelope, leading to the announcement of La La Land as Best Picture…for around two minutes.

The chaos on that stage, like it or not, nears the top of extremely scientific lists of the Oscars’ most-watched moments. We expect flowery speeches, extravagant dresses, perhaps a slap or two. But a gaffe gets an audience thinking and talking more than they otherwise would.

The memorability of gaffes also gives speakers the opportunity to reclaim them intentionally. At a 2010 bill signing for the ACA, then-Vice President Biden famously whispered an uncouth congrats to his boss — and a hot mic on live television — saying, “This is a big f*cking deal.”

Now, Americans didn’t love the Vice President cursing (especially one extremely decorous high schooler in Kentucky), but they do love when public figures are in on the joke. Over the past decade, Biden has periodically woven references to that moment into remarks about other pieces of legislation. In 2022, while talking about healthcare premium savings in the Inflation Reduction Act and American Rescue Plan, he said, “It’s a big deal. Some might even say it’s a ‘BFD.’” Obama joined in with a tweet saying the same. And just recently, the two made a video about the open enrollment period that ends with the acronym. Biden’s language might not have been “vice presidential,” but it brought a whole lot of attention to a point that his and Obama’s administration was ultimately eager to communicate: that the ACA really was a very big deal.

Admittedly, some gaffes are best left ignored, apologized for, or played off, much like a rebound after a free throw attempt that was definitely, totally supposed to hit the rim. But others allow speakers to have a sense of humor and show their humanity.

The hottest buzzword for brands trying to reach Gen Z is authenticity — in fact, it’s Merriam-Webster’s word of 2023, which means it’s probably not authentic anymore. Nevertheless, experts say that young adults are pushing back against the inauthenticity that defined our coming-of-age — particularly the overly polished lives we saw on Instagram and the “fake news” we heard about on Twitter. So when a public figure is “real” — when they demonstrate enough vulnerability to acknowledge their flaws instead of trying to cover them up — they can connect with a generation that has otherwise been taught to be skeptical of everyone and everything.

And keeping it real isn’t just for kids. Northwestern Marketing Professor Jacob Teeny explains that people are attracted to a psychological idea called the Pratfall Effect: “Introducing a small character flaw makes you more likeable, because people can’t relate to you when you’re just all shiny and perfect.” A gaffe, in essence, is a small character flaw on a shiny silver platter.

Back in the baby blue neck of the South, Michael Jordan himself turned a blunder into an opportunity to admit his mistake and grab attention. Only five days after the slip-up, at a home game against Miami, the Carolina mascot and band were in tees with one message: “Ceiling, Roof, GOAT.”

As countless musicians, artists, TV show hosts, and French philosophers have told us: nobody’s perfect. Especially UNC. (I couldn’t resist.) If public speakers can learn to acknowledge and riff on their gaffes…well, the sky may not be the limit, but the ceiling could certainly be the roof.

– Hana Stepnick (WWW intern alum)

In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.

Follow West Wing Writers on Twitter.



West Wing Writers

A progressive communications-strategy firm led by former Clinton, Obama, and Biden Administration speechwriters.