Did his reluctance to act deserve an attack?
“The Last Dance,” a sports documentary miniseries highlighting the Chicago Bulls’ 1997–98 championship run, aired Episodes 5 and 6 on Sunday, May 3rd, once again captivating several sports enthusiasts eager for entertainment during the current coronavirus pandemic. These two episodes, much like the others prior, discussed aspects of basketball icon Michael Jordan unknown to many, such as the origin of his Jordan brand, his relationship with gambling, and Jordan’s attitude toward being a cultural icon during the height of his NBA career. Despite these new revelations, however, one topic sparked mixed reactions: Jordan’s stance on community activism.
In Episode 5 audiences were made aware of the 1990 North Carolina Senate race between Harvey Gantt and Jesse Helms and the basketball icon’s reluctance to get involved with politics. A major point raised was that if elected Gantt would become the first Black American to hold a Senate seat for North Carolina. Moreover, Helms was a blatant racist, evidenced by his opposition to making Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday and an allegation that he once whistled “Dixie,” a song used during minstrel shows, to purposefully upset a Black senator who occupied the same elevator as him. Jordan’s involvement in this Senate race became a focal point since he grew up in North Carolina and was at the time a global — Black — icon.
According to the documentary, Jordan’s mother asked him to publicly support Gantt via Public Service Announcement. Jordan claimed he did not want to speak about someone that he did not know, but instead sent a contribution to support Gantt’s campaign. It was later said that Jordan lost some credibility with the Black community due to this decision, as well as the infamous “Republicans buy sneakers, too” line which he insisted was a joke. When reflecting on his past decision making in the documentary, Jordan said the following:
“I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in, but I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player. I wasn’t a politician when I was playing my sport. You know, I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy. That’s where my energy was.”
Must celebrities or those with a public platform be activists for specific causes when the safety and well-being of others are on the line? At the time of North Carolina’s Senate race in 1990, Jordan, though immensely popular — evidenced by 1989’s “It’s Gotta Be The Shoes” commercial, had yet to win an NBA championship or an MVP award. Therefore, it seems reasonable that his ambitions as a basketball player, wanting to be on the level of his sports idols, would have been more of a focal point than supporting politicians. However, the race between Gantt and Helms was somewhat different.
A White racist occupying North Carolina’s Senate seat would surly hinder non-White groups in the US. This is what made Jordan’s refusal to publicly support Gantt heartbreaking for many, especially Black people. Gantt eventually lost by a margin of 53 to 47 percent. Had Jordan spoke out against Helms, some believe the outcome would have been different. Legendary broadcaster Bob Costas spoke on this matter last Monday, describing Helms as a virulent racist who needed to be denied a Senate seat due to his moral failings. According to him, this race was an instance “where even someone who was apolitical should have made an exception.”
Arguably, being a celebrity means having the ability to influence others. With this power comes great responsibility, a burden some may wish to evade if possible. Jordan was within his rights to avoid any dealings with politics, no matter the storyline. Just because Costas and others felt it was their moral duty to support Gantt does not mean Jordan had a similar mentality. People are entitled to have different values. Moreover, Jordan may have felt that speaking on any political matter would be an added burden. An example of this was seen late last year when NBA star LeBron James refused to speak on protests happening in Hong Kong. Many felt James, who is known to speak on political and racial issues, was being hypocritical when refusing to stand up for Hong Kong protesters who felt their civil liberties were at stake.
Nevertheless, it should be reiterated that the basketball icon supposedly gave Gantt a donation. Therefore, he seemingly cared enough about the 1990 Senate race and the consequences of Helms winning. Still, some may feel that Jordan’s lack of visibility is what cost Gantt the victory. Whether or not this is true, Jordan was within his rights to keep his political ideas private. Politics are a contentious arena and can hurt one’s image. Though beloved by many today, both Muhammad Ali and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were once widely criticized for their stance on the Vietnam War. Supposedly, Jordan cares deeply about his image. This is part of the reason why he had to be persuaded to greenlight the “The Last Dance.” It should be noted, however, that Gantt ran against Helms again in 1996, which Jordan held a fundraiser for at his Chicago restaurant. Still, Gantt lost.
Fork in the road
Ultimately, celebrities and those with a public platform can pick and choose which causes to support or if they wish to be left out of activism and politics altogether. Those who occupy these high positions are no different from the lay public. Celebrities are just as flawed as healthcare workers, custodians, and restaurant managers. Differences only come into play when highlighting specific skills or talents that have been mastered by those with mass appeal. For Jordan, his abilities in basketball separated him from others. Still, many, seeing his ability to influence the public, may feel the basketball icon should be more visible, especially given recent issues surrounding race in the US.
Though Jordan and his critics may not consider him an activist, he has throughout the years acted in ways that arguably make him one. Currently, Jordan is the owner and CEO of the Charlotte Hornets with reportedly one of the most diversified staffs in all professional sports. In fact, more Black executives work for this organization than any other sports team. Additionally, the highest-ranking Black executives within Nike work for the Jordan Brand. Jordan has also donated around $30 million to activist projects over the last five years. Just last year, he helped open a health clinic for underprivileged members of Charlotte, North Carolina.
Jordan’s words in Episode 5 of “The Last Dance” may have disappointed some, but the basketball icon’s actions seemingly disprove his activism claims. Still, if the explanation he gave about his attitude toward the 1990 North Carolina Senate race or his later behaviors to help those in need is not enough to appease critics, perhaps they should listen to the following advice Jordan gave during Episode 5:
“The way that I go about my life is I set examples. And if it inspires you, great. You know, I will continue to do that. If it doesn’t, then maybe I’m not the person that you should be following.”