Of the many conspicuous reasons to not hold “Michael Jordan: The Person” in the same esteem as “Michael Jordan: The Basketball Icon,” perhaps the most notable is “Republicans buy sneakers too” — a statement he made in 1990 while explaining why he wouldn’t publicly endorse Black Democratic candidate Harvey Gantt in a North Carolina state senate race against the unquestionably loathsome Jesse Helms. That Jordan may have leaned Republican and had the audacity to not support a Black politician wasn’t the issue. We (Black Americans) are not the Borg, and despite what many seem to think, it’s not a crime against Black America to not be a Democrat.
No, the problem with Jordan’s statement was how it served as a microcosm for the “Get rich, or die trying” mindset that had begun to permeate Black America — a concept that was becoming so engrained that a man like Jordan was no longer ashamed to publicly admit that his first allegiance was to the bottom line. Also, that this statement came from a Black athlete was especially shocking. From Ali and Bill Russell to Jackie Robinson and Wilma Rudolph, Black athletes had traditionally been on the frontlines of activism, using their popularity and status to fight for civil rights and enact change, sacrificing income and even jeopardizing their safety and freedom for the cause. Jordan, on the other hand, was the most prominent example of the “new” Black athlete, one who stayed politically indifferent (publicly, at least) to maximize their branding and endorsement potential, politics and kids getting shot over $150 kicks be damned.
But, after reading about Jordan’s plans to participate in an upcoming Obama fundraiser and seeing Hoopshype.com’s recent list of the campaigns supported by NBA players, coaches, and execs, I began to think that we may be too hard on MJ and the rest of today’s popular athletes. Although most of us attempt to chart our own courses, the vast majority of the people who inhabit this planet are products of our environments. We don’t create culture as much as we’re reflections of it. And, while I wouldn’t dare disparage or minimize the efforts made by our ancestors, efforts that allowed for us to have opportunities they couldn’t have dreamed of, I do think that it was, for lack of a better term, “easier” to be an activist at a time when so many were activism minded. Marching and protesting and picketing were many things — brave, important, courageous, selfless — but it was also what the cool kids did, and regardless of what “something” happens to be, it’s much easier to be a part of something when you know you won’t be alone.
Despite the fact that their status and visibility may suggest otherwise, popular athletes are also products of their environments, and the relative lack of activism present in today’s sports stars is nothing but a reflection of the collective community’s relative lack of activism. If we want our millionaire athletes to be more concerned with social justice than they seem to be with Bugattis, Instagram, and Rose, fine. We just gotta do it ourselves, first.