Michael Jordan is known the world over for his legendary basketball career, his iconic sneakers, and, these days, his business acumen. But there is one area in which the former Chicago Bulls shooting guard has been notoriously quiet until Monday: racial politics in America.
In a letter released to the Undefeated, Jordan broke his long-standing silence on social issues in order to "make a positive difference."
"As a proud American, a father who lost his own dad in a senseless act of violence, and a black man, I have been deeply troubled by the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement and angered by the cowardly and hateful targeting and killing of police officers," Jordan wrote. "I grieve with the families who have lost loved ones, as I know their pain all too well."
The letter also announced Jordan’s plans to donate $1 million each to The Institute for Community-Police Relations, an initiative launched by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a leading civil rights law firm that branched off from the NAACP in 1957.
The statement is a decided change for Jordan, who’s been especially tight-lipped about politics, seemingly for the sake of not jeopardizing his business interests. This image of the all-star was crystalized by a widely reported incident in which Jordan, after being asked why he failed to support a Democratic senate hopeful responded, "Republicans buy sneakers, too." Jordan himself denies having made the comment, but the impression that it gave has lived on in infamy, especially in the black community.
In a 2015 interview with NPR, fellow basketball legend Karim Abdul-Jabbar criticized Jordan, for choosing "commerce over conscience." Earlier this year, as athletes in the NFL, NBA, and WNBA expressed outrage and grief over the repeated police killings of black Americans, ESPN writer Howard Bryant dubbed them, "the anti-Jordans."
Jordan’s comments come at a time when athletes in many different sports are speaking up about racial injustices
In 2014, after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, five members of the St. Louis Rams ran onto the field with their arms raised. The action was a widely interpreted as a gesture to the "hands up, don’t shoot" rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement and other activists.
More recently, NBA players like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Derrick Rose have all used their platforms to either declare their support for Black Lives Matter or express their frustration regarding institutionalized racism in the country.
These demonstrations have not been universally praised. In 2014, the St. Louis Rams issued a public apology for the St. Louis 5’s "hands up don’t shoot" gesture, buckling to accusations that the players’ support for the movement for black lives was a sign of disrespect to law enforcement. After NBA players showed up to a game wearing T-shirts with the phrase "I can’t breathe" emblazoned across the chest in memory of Eric Garner, there was some talk in the league about leveling fines against those who participated.
This incident played out again in the WNBA when players wore similar shirts on the court this month. The players and their teams were initially fined, but after quite a bit of pressure, the fines were dropped.
Jordan’s comments on Monday can be seen as a pretty direct result of these events. At the very least, they signal a shift in the climate of professional athletics in which social awareness is increasingly viewed as a responsibility rather than a liability.
Just earlier this month, the NBA announced that it was moving its all-star game out of North Carolina in response to the state’s recent discriminatory anti-LGBTQ law. Back in April, Jordan expressed his own opposition to the law, saying that the Charlotte Hornets, the team he owns, "are opposed to discrimination in any form, and … have always sought to provide an inclusive environment."
Jordan’s comments in his Monday letter were measured — he was careful to express his outrage for both the victims of police brutality as well as police officers gunned down in the line of duty. In this way, they fit into his diplomatic brand of sports celebrity while also taking back the narrative from critics who question his commitment to social equality.
"I have decided to speak out in the hope that we can come together as Americans," Jordan wrote in his letter, "and through peaceful dialogue and education, achieve constructive change."