Celebrities don’t owe you anything past whatever made them famous. This weekend, when I go see the new Jason Bourne at the movies, lead actor Matt Damon will owe me a great performance. When I see the Saint Pablo tour this fall, Kanye West will owe me a dynamic concert. I invest time and money in you, you owe me a good job. That’s how it works.
That said, let’s talk about Michael Jordan, who recently released an impassioned statement about the rampant shootings of African Americans by police officers and the social unrest that comes with it.
“I can no longer stay silent,” he says before expressing disappointment about our nation’s inability 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 put a load of money behind his words and writes that he’s split $2 million and donated it to the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s newly established Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
That “silent” part is arguably (and unfortunately) the most noteworthy of the statement, because, to many, Jordan has skipped several chances to talk about social issues during his more than 30 years in the limelight as a star athlete. Unlike other Black sports icons like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Jordan was quiet.
He’s infamous for allegedly responding, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” when asked to support North Carolina democrat Harvey Gantt for a seat on the Senate in the early ‘90s (his reps have denied this vehemently), thus beginning the storyline of a businessman so shrewd that he’d ignore issues bigger than basketball for the sake Air Jordan sales.
I get it: That’s a bad look. While Jordan paired with Gatorade and campaigned for us to be “Like Mike,” others bristled at the thought and wished he’d be like Ali.
Yes, it’d be nice if he was. However, the discussion ends there. It would have been nice and impactful. But Michael Jordan did not owe anyone that. There are arguments, sure, to be made about whether his moral compass should have guided Michael—a man that was easily one of the top five most famous people on Earth during his heyday—to use his platform to make the lives of people less fortunate (his people) better. Like Spiderman’s Uncle Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” True.
But understanding that being Spiderman means that you’ll likely get your ass kicked on a nightly basis, would you fault Peter Parker if he just said, “Fuck this shit” and quit the hero game? It’s both silly and easy to be an armchair general and say what you’d do if given the same opportunities as Michael Jordan or any marquee figure. Would you have had the balls to raise the Black Power fist at the podium like Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico? Would you have refused to enlist in the army like Muhammad Ali did for the Vietnam War and lose years from your career to serve time in jail? Would you risk movie roles or mega advertising dollars to stand up with the #BlackLivesMatter movement? Maybe? Definitely? Hopefully. But I wouldn’t fault someone who answered “No.” That takes a unique type of courage. Even current NBA star Carmelo Anthony said “it’s about time” Michael spoke out.
Also, it’s terrible to diminish the philanthropic efforts of a man of means, because it doesn’t benefit the specific issue or cause you want them to support. What’s wrong with Jordan donating millions to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, like he has? What about him being the majority owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats and the organization always having a Black president under his watch (currently Fred Whitfield)? And his Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational golf tournament has raised millions for several charities. What about that? Still, social media timelines and sports pundits alike became cynics when Jordan broke his “silence.” Some said he’s too late. Others clowned and wondered if it was more of a business move than a show of humanity.
I’ll admit that I laughed at that one. But my point remains: Michael Jordan doesn’t owe us shit. He’s not a member of a government office or some pseudo freedom fighter. Those people are out there. Count on them in these moments of brutal racial injustice.
When Michael Jordan was a player and we watched in hopes of being awed, he owed you savage dunks and artful fade-away jumpers. Lock-down defense. If your pockets are deep enough, he still owes you sneakers that are so gorgeous and heralded that they make you feel you’re as fly as His Airness himself was then.
But to be an outspoken leader and political advocate for African Americans whose impact was as great as it was when he hooped on the court? No. He didn’t. Never did. He still doesn’t. So instead of criticizing him for responsibilities he never accepted, let’s just appreciate that he’s here now. He did something extra good.