Why Michael Jordan Missed the Mark in 1st Attempt at Social Consciousness

Khalid Salaam@@MrKhalidSGuest ColumnistJuly 28, 2016

FILE - In this Aug. 21, 2015, file photo, former NBA star and current owner of the Charlotte Hornets, Michael Jordan, smiles at reporters in Chicago. Jordan announced Monday, July 25, 2016,  he’s giving $1 million to the Institute for Community-Police Relations and $1 million to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to help build trust between blacks and law enforcement following several disturbing clashes around the country. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)
Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Michael Jordan's recent statement to The Undefeated on police brutality is a quick read.

The sparse number of words isn't the problem, though; it's what he says. The Gettysburg Address came to a grand total of 272 words, so we know size isn't the fulcrum on which greatness turns. Greatness is impacted by spirit, and his comments are devoid of it. 

He unexpectedly addressed the issue of black people and police brutality, energizing fans who had long given up on Jordan's potential as a social crusader. He mentioned that he "can no longer stay silent” and that he is “saddened and frustrated by the divisive rhetoric and racial tensions that seem to be getting worse as of late.”

The shock of his comments was followed by a barrage of keyboard slow claps, many lauding him for finally acknowledging a serious social issue.

Many consider this a win, a big deal in and of itself. Ronda Racha Penrice, cultural historian and author of the book African American History for Dummies, is among them.

"Jordan is not Ali and never will be, but that's not his way. He is more of a 'show you' type of person than a 'tell you' type," Penrice told Bleacher Report. "For him to say anything, no matter how small, is big.

"I'm from Chicago, and I know of a lot of the stuff that Jordan did on the low for communities. Jordan came from the generation where people adopted the 'it doesn't matter what they say as long as you're getting money' mantra. I guess he feels like he has a greater responsibility now."

But why now? Why, after decades of silence, would Jordan suddenly feel this greater responsibility?

Melissa Dodd, a professor at the University of Central Florida who focuses on corporate activism, ushered me to a theory. Dodd noted that consumers today are looking for companies that aren't scared to speak up. Giving your brand a social cause now may be better business than it was yesterday.

"These conversations weren't happening before, and smart companies are choosing to engage rather than letting it happen without their opinion being a part of it," Dodd says. "Being involved is especially important to millennials, who grew up with the collapse of Enron and distrust of banks, so they hold companies to higher standards. They support organizations that they feel have views aligned with theirs."

Jordan’s perceived ideology has been simplified to an alleged quote going back over a quarter century.

"Republicans buy sneakers too."

This quote exists as a ghost, since there's never been any verifiable proof he ever uttered the statement. It gained traction throughout the years because it seemed true, his quietness defining him as indifferent to social issues.

Michael Jordan has prioritized business matters over political causes for decades but said in a statement earlier this week he can "no longer stay silent."
Michael Jordan has prioritized business matters over political causes for decades but said in a statement earlier this week he can "no longer stay silent."Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images

Context for that quote is often forgotten. It was in regards to Jesse Helms, the former North Carolina senator, whose brand of primitive racism gave inspiration to hate practitioners across the nation.

Helms was one of the loudest voices against recognizing Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday. He staged a 16-day filibuster to keep it from passing into law. Most famously, Helms, while running for re-election in 1990 against former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, ran an ad depicting imaginary white victimhood in response to racial employment quotas.

Gantt asked Jordan for his endorsement, but Helms' voters were valued Jordan customers.

"Republicans buy sneakers too." See how believable that seems now?

Maybe that explains the hollowness I read in between the lines of Jordan's statement. Maybe that's why, when he writes, "I can no longer stay silent," I still can't hear him. It reads like a 36-year-old journeyman finally promising he's going to start hustling after a career of coasting.

Jordan's legacy of greatness has always come with a caveat: his reticence to expound on serious topics. For years, this was the only legitimate asterisk in a "Jordan is the GOAT" argument. LeBron James, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar all get bonus points for speaking out. Jordan never did.

On the hardwood, Jordan was a devastator, reliable in his greatness to the point where it was almost boring. He was a strong-willed, no-fear-having, next-level winner. But for all his courage on the court, he seemed altogether impotent in a world where justice matters.

To be fair, many will claim that sentiment is conjecture.

But the idea is out there. Carmelo Anthony's comment in regard to MJ's letter—it's "about time"—is proof and even stings on a business level. Anthony is a Jordan Brand athlete.

Carmelo Anthony, a Jordan Brand athlete, said it was "about time" Michael Jordan spoke up about race relations in the United States earlier this week.
Carmelo Anthony, a Jordan Brand athlete, said it was "about time" Michael Jordan spoke up about race relations in the United States earlier this week.Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

If only the letter were boring, I could accept that. If it were filled with milquetoast platitudes, I might only scoff. But parts of this letter are irresponsible.

"We need to find solutions that ensure people of color receive fair and equal treatment AND that police officers—who put their lives on the line every day to protect us all—are respected and supported," he wrote.

In his statements, he continues down this confusing road by listing the $1 million contributions he's making to two organizations, the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s newly established Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

I tend to leave my hands out of other people's pockets. It's his right to donate to whatever organization he sees fit. I just hope he or someone in his circle see the damage in making this connection.

Today's most pressing issue isn't whether cops are or aren't respected or supported. The issue is lawlessness among nationwide officer ranks. The issue is the justice system's reinforcement of racially biased behavior.

To imply anything else is a false equivalency. People are merely asking that cops stop killing people when the option not to exists. People are asking that police unions stop slandering the dead (and the living for that matter). People are asking that cops be brave enough to point out their savage colleagues and stop hiding behind their badges. Jordan's letter makes it seem like the cops are being victimized somehow.

The situations in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as horrid as they were, are outliers. They were the actions of crazed faux vigilantes. There's no proof of a vast movement by black people to kill cops.

According to the most recent FBI statistics, the number of police officers killed in 2015 was down almost 20 percent compared to 2014, following in line with similar trends going back for more than a decade.

There's no logical reason to make a connection between police officer rights and people protesting widespread, systematic abuse of power and privilege.

The only reason someone would tie these causes together is to buffer themselves from a public relations hit. It's a hedge. As the owner of an NBA franchise and a product endorser, Jordan knows the consequences of going too far out on a ledge.

But going halfway is worse, especially now.

So now what? Was this a one-off for Jordan? Or can we expect him to say more going forward? The issue of police misconduct will continue, and more celebrities and business leaders may come to the realization that they should join the conversation.

That's fine, but here's some advice: Choose your words wisely, and say something that resonates. Don't hedge, especially when you're the GOAT and can do whatever you damn well please.


Khalid Salaam is a freelance writer who contributes to Esquire, Slam Magazine and others. Follow him on Twitter @MrKhalidS.


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