Michael Jordan released a statement on Monday addressing the country’s racial climate, police brutality, and violent retaliation aimed at the police. He also pledged a million dollars to what he presumably sees as two sides of the heart of the matter: an arm of a police chief’s association and the legal defense fund for the NAACP.
Jordan’s statement isn’t groundbreaking on its own, nor is it without problems (we’ll get to that momentarily), but it is a stunning development because of his outsized influence on sports and his prior resistance to wading into social issues publicly. For Jordan, and professional basketball at large, the need to take ownership of a cause has become overwhelming.
The Silent GOAT
Jordan lifted his decades-long commitment to remaining apolitical. A quote attributed to Jordan apocryphally has generally framed his anemic public posturing: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Jordan did not see himself as a Mohammad Ali-type activist, nor a civil rights baton-carrier like a Jackie Robinson. Rather, Jordan was a transcendent icon — a brand, an idea and execution of greatness that coursed through his play, his star and his global partnership with Nike.
As a result, Jordan the Myth has been almost exclusively in our purview. His championship achievements cast a pall over every discussion of contemporary NBA players’ worth. Even when his GOAT status isn’t being romanticized, it’s being deconstructed like a fallen idol. The zero-sum “ringz” counting — Jordan three-peated twice — has become shorthand for hot sports takes. And then there’s the crying MJ face, the ubiquitous meme that transforms Jordan’s legacy of winning into a mockery of losers everywhere.
The brief instances when Jordan’s personality has seeped through the cracks have been mundane and less than flattering. The poor fashion choices. The embarrassingly petty Hall of Fame speech. The Oprahfied peek into his friendship with Charles Barkley, who lowkey put Jordan’s aversion to taking a principled stand on blast:
“I think the difference is, he might be wiser, but I’m willing to take more chances. I’ll challenge people if I think they’re wrong. I don’t ever worry about controversy and what other people think of me.”
Whether Jordan’s self-fortification is from a deep-seated people pleasing gene (doubtful) or an extension of his ruthless competitiveness in protecting his financial interests, his statement and corresponding donations on Monday shed light on his humanity that is often forgotten. Google autofills searches for “Michael Jordan dad jeans,” before “Michael Jordan dad murder.” “I can no longer stay silent,” his statement reads, recalling the loss of his father, who was shot to death while being robbed. He offers solidarity with the plight of being black and a black parent while acknowledging that his relationship to law enforcement as a celebrity and mogul has been more comfy than others’. He says he is troubled by “divisive rhetoric” and appeals to the strength of his nation’s character in proclaiming that positive change is attainable. A measured, otherwise vanilla approach given weight not by his GOATness, but by his real personal pain.
The New Pressure
Jordan’s statement came on the heels of the NBA’s decision to pull next year’s All-Star Game from Charlotte over North Carolina’s transgender bathroom bill. Jordan is the majority owner of the would-be hosting Hornets team. He didn’t take a similar stand on that front, only describing disappointment that a deal with the NBA could not be struck in a Hornets press release.
That’s the same tact that Charlotte native Steph Curry has taken, refusing to go on the record with his feelings about the discriminatory bill or his general views on LGBT issues. Curry is the reigning two-time MVP and newly anointed face of the league. His tremendous appeal and popularity are due in part to a careful, non-threatening and apolitical public persona fashioned in the Jordan mold. (Although his religious belief is likely an added factor to commercial interests in keeping him mum on current events.) He gave a mediaspeak interview about the All-Star Game upheaval, using long-winded answers to say essentially nothing, merely acknowledging that a decision was made and that things are not ideal.
That lukewarm strategy is Curry’s prerogative and has been standard operating procedure for most star athletes. But something is in the air, some combination of the blunt visuals of death on camera, the heat of social media, and a genuine reckoning of politics made personal reaching even the world’s elite class of athletes. The pressure to embrace the role of social champion is different than the typical pull toward endorsements, ratings, and the bottom dollar. The pressure of stewarding the influence a highly visible athlete wields will probably get to Curry if it’s getting to Jordan, especially as his peers push for it.
LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony (who has set the bar on this front), Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade gave a cold open at the ESPYs urging just that. WNBA players recently united to don #BlackLivesMatter/#Dallas5 shirts in warmups, refusing to answer postgame questions not addressing the former movement. Other examples abound, and they’re snowballing.
Stumbling Toward a Cause
Lebron James has been dipping his toes in modest activism — posing in hoodies with his Miami Heat teammates after the Trayvon Martin killing, wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt with his peers in a New York pregame in the wake of Eric Garner’s death by police chokehold — for a minute. But he disappointed Tamir Rice’s mother by not having an informed take about her slain child in his city.
Jordan, like the WNBA players, made the unfortunate choice to equivocate police brutality with citizen crime (as devastating as the latter can be, it’s a red herring to treat it as the other side of the excessive force coin). Jordan’s community policing donation recipient also might not check out as the best advocate for the kind of systematic change and accountability necessary to actually resolve the daily tension between police and the communities they serve. As surprising as Jordan’s action was, it’s predictable that he tried to honor “both sides” in a show of balance and unity. That could be a cynical move on his part, or a supremely understandable one, even if misplaced.
Many of us get exhausted by identity politics, but they’re irresistible and/or unavoidable for a reason: they matter. They’re supremely compelling, even to a super rich baller many years removed from the hood. How we engage them matters too, and the shape of the problematic thinkpiece blog machine is often more problematic than its subject matter.
There is a balance that needs to be struck when politically untrained public figures start wading into these waters in good faith. Kid gloves aren’t the answer; the stakes are too real, and celebrating ignorance will only perpetuate social ills. But the pull to polarize is real and unfortunate, to strike every political action against every jot and tittle and dismiss any gains as fraudulent. Jordan’s voice is thunderous, and early reactions across all media indicate that he successfully added to the legitimacy of black life concerns, even if he misfired.
In that ESPY plea for engagement, James called Muhammad Ali the GOAT, a true model for how he and his peers should wield power for the common good. Less tunnel vision for endorsements and on-court success, more engagement with the issues of the day. James challenged athletes to take ownership and reinvest in their communities. The implication of James wanting to be more like Ali? That he should be less like Mike. Mike himself seems to be taking that charge to heart.