Michael Jordan did two things Monday that, for him, were virtually unprecedented. He donated $2 million, a million apiece to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and to the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s newly established Institute for Community-Police Relations, and he spoke out against “the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement” and “the cowardly and hateful targeting and killing of police officers.” Even Jordan understood his statement’s weight, saying “I can no longer stay silent.”
Jordan has long been criticized for his silence on social issues, bearing the brunt of it from the likes of then-teammate Craig Hodges and more recently from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who said Jordan chose “commerce over conscience.” It was a particularly stinging rebuke from Abdul-Jabbar, a fellow Hall of Famer who has long been involved in the world beyond basketball.
As someone who walked through doors that were opened by the likes of Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, and Muhammad Ali, Jordan simply lived the life that those men fought for him to be able to live. Jordan was able to lift a franchise, star in a movie, and represent his country. He became, bar none, the biggest sports star in the world, worshipped by kids (and adults) of every race and nationality. He was also unable to do something as simple as go to a mall or a movie without security. Fame cut both ways. His entire life was lived in the public eye, is there any wonder he didn’t want to thrust himself further into it?
Jordan’s the majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets, who employ more people of color in their front office than any other major American sports franchise.
This is not meant to make excuses for Jordan, who during his playing career embraced fellow Nike athlete Charles Barkley’s “I am not a role model” mantra in a more passive manner. While Barkley threw himself into a wild nightlife (and one inebriated patron through a plate-glass window), Jordan kept to high-limit casino tables and members-only golf courses. As Barkley bounced from Philadelphia to Phoenix to Houston, Jordan stayed in Chicago and won championships. He led primarily by example, but he still led.
The era we live in now has, in a sense, come full circle to that of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Superstar athletes are speaking out again on a regular basis on social issues after nearly half a century where most just stuck to sports. Back in the ‘80s, Jordan could simply sell shoes, Magic Johnson could mug for the cameras with Larry Bird, Charles Barkley could literally say “I am not a role model” and have Nike turn it into a commercial. Now you have the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul turning award show openings into serious commentary, and WNBA players standing up to their own league.
There are many things that made this possible. Social media has given star athletes a more direct outlet, larger salaries (and shorter contracts) have given star athletes more power, recent acts of violence have been disseminated faster and further. Stories that may have remained local in the newspaper/CNN days have become national news. There are more ways to speak out and more things to speak out on. And James, the best player in the NBA, has long been outspoken.
It was a different era then, it’s a different era now. And while Jordan himself may not have spoken out until Monday, all three of the players who joined James in that ESPYS opener—Anthony, Paul, and Wade—either are or were Jordan Brand endorsers. James himself like so many others grew up wearing No. 23 because of Jordan. He may not have spoken until now, but, like Abdul-Jabbar and Russell, Jordan helped build the platform from which today’s players speak.
And he’s done more. Jordan’s the majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets, who employ more people of color in their front office than any other major American sports franchise. He’s the face of the Jordan Brand, who have always had a black president. Action, not words, has been his way since the beginning. And while it’s cool that he finally broke his silence on something going on outside of sports, just understand that he never had to.