What good is minority representation in important places if you don’t represent? Yet, at the same time, if that burden to be social or political or philanthropic isn’t placed on your counterparts in the majority without scrutiny, that’s not a closer step to equality.
Those are the moral arguments I have bouncing back and forth in my head whenever I come across the quote “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
It’s the quote that best signifies athletes, in this case Michael Jordan, selling out to sell products.
It has long been a conversation piece in barbershops, locker rooms and gatherings among friends.
It was a topic widely discussed, even though we never could actually pinpoint where we first heard it, or if in fact Jordan said it all. It was just a dark part of the mythology that is Jordan’s living legacy.
The backlash of Jordan’s words hasn’t hurt his commercial appeal as his shoes are still the No. 1 selling signature brand, and as disappointed as I was to hear it, I still had a bunch of Jordans in my closet back then and still have them.
The context of the quote is the 1990 senate race in North Carolina when Harvey Gantt, a Democrat and former mayor of Charlotte, is taking on Jesse Helms, an openly racist Republican, who died in 2008.
The notorious Jordan quote was in Sam Smith’s 1995 book “Second Coming” and was circulated in other articles and books after that. Jordan never really took any ownership in saying it until the recent “The Last Dance” documentary.
In fact, in the documentary Jordan claims it was said in jest on a bus with Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, and doesn’t apologize for the perceived sentiment behind it.
“I never thought of myself as an activist, I thought of myself as a basketball player,” he said in the latest episode. “I wasn’t a politician. I was playing my sport. You know, I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But you know that was my energy. That’s where my energy was.”
It wasn’t probably selfish. It was unequivocally selfish.
Jordan managed to dedicate lots of time to his brand, golf, gambling and even baseball. He could have found time to focus on the plight of others without compromising his basketball career, as they aren’t mutually exclusive.
At the same time, however, what he chose to do — or not do in this case — was also fine. It’s his life and the expectations of selflessness seem to be a prerequisite for minority athletes, in particular.
Nobody asked Larry Bird at the time what he was doing for the poor people of French Lick, Ind. It’s only asked of the upper-echelon minority athletes because nowhere in the doc, or ever, did we have an examination of Scottie Pippen weighing in on Arkansas politics. We care what Jordan did because he was black, and he was famously the best. Two things largely out of his control.
Still though, Jordan had options. Even if he didn’t want to endorse Gantt he could have easily spoken up in opposition of Helms.
And in that sense, the “Republicans buy sneakers, too” explanation doesn’t hold water because by abstaining what you’re really saying is “racists buy sneakers, too.”
He didn’t have to speak out against the party, he could have spoken out against the person. Jordan is smart and articulate enough to not only know the difference, but be able to communicate it effectively.
At the very least, Jordan was consistent. He wasn’t overly political about anything during his playing career. When he spoke it was on behalf of Nike, Hanes, McDonald’s and Gatorade. That’s where his allegiances lay. The boldest move he made was covering the Reebok logo on his track jacket with an American flag at the 1992 Olympics in solidarity with Nike.
And herein lies the problem.
The Mount Rushmore of black athletes has always been connected to the struggle of black people. Jesse Owens, Jack Johnson, Willie O’Ree, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, Tommie Smith and John Carlos all doubled down on their activist endeavours once they became famous. They didn’t divorce themselves from it.
In some way, these athletes remained connected to their old communities because they were still struggling, whether it was financially or racially. They were successful stars, but they were in no way treated equally in their everyday lives or in their profession.
Then the 1990s came along and the money in professional sports exploded. The athletes could take care of themselves and their families with generational wealth, much of which came to them from off-the-court ventures.
It’s not as if other top black athletes at the time in other sports like Bo Jackson or Ken Griffey Jr. were outwardly political. Rather, they were following the blueprint laid out by Jordan.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama articulated this conundrum in “The Last Dance.”
“Any African American that sees significant success has an added burden. America is very quick to embrace a Jordan, an Oprah, a Barack Obama, so long as it’s understood you don’t get too controversial around broader issues of social justice.”
Which is why Jordan is in between a rock and a hard place. He likely doesn’t become Michael Jordan as we know him if he was rebelling against the system and forcing conversations about systemic racism.
At the same time, he’ll never fully get credit from his own community for all the important work he’s done and inspiration he’s provided for minorities after the fact. Jordan isn’t blameless, but he is a victim of timing and circumstance.
It’s hard to evaluate Jordan in the 1990s through a 2020 lens when athletes like LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Megan Rapinoe cultivate their personal brands around their social activism and political leanings as it’s no longer something to be ashamed of and is now something to sell.
The reason why this is highly debated among black people is that on this issue, like many others, black people are not a monolith. Many feel Jordan was not only within his rights, but right in the way he handled himself throughout his career. They’d argue that real progress is made working within the system not fighting against it.
The thought is only so much social progress can happen in isolation. The most powerful gesture would be to rise in the ranks and then use your political and institutional capital to impact change from the inside.
You can argue nobody in sports has done this better than Jordan. He’s literally gone from employee to employer, both in his relationship with Nike and the NBA as a man with his own brand under the Nike umbrella and the only black owner in the NBA. In these roles, he’s hired a substantial amount of minority executives as the leader of both Jumpman and the Charlotte Hornets.
Rich Cho was the only Asian-American GM in the NBA when he worked for Jordan from 2011-2018. Currently, four of the top six executives under Jordan in the Hornets’ front office are black. Sarah Mensah, vice-president and general manager of Jordan Brand North America, is the highest-ranking black female working for a sneaker brand.
As a billionaire, he’s opted to use economic empowerment rather than social activism.
But that’s not to say he hasn’t been active socially.
Jordan has supported Obama and his political campaigns. And in 2016 after the death of Trayvon Martin, he wrote an op-ed for The Undefeated where he described his feelings on the shootings of African Americans.
The headline of the story is telling. “I can no longer stay silent” acknowledges the fact that he was willingly choosing to keep quiet and had the agency to speak if he wanted. Additionally, he put his money where his mouth was and donated $1 million to the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s newly established Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, causes he thought could help find solutions.
Beyond that, he was one of the founding donors of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
He’s certainly made up for lost time.
But in regards to if Jordan was right or wrong to make that infamous quote, the real answer is there is no right answer.
Although the child in me still nostalgically loves Jordan and gets the same butterflies when I get a new pair of his shoes, the adult in me wishes he made the future existence of black people better for my child when he was at the height of his powers to be able to do so.
Like in many facets of his life, the ultimate legacy of Jordan is in not being who we want him to be, but being doggedly determined to be who he wanted to be.