Like so many people around my age, I was an enthusiastic Michael Jordan fan as a kid and into young adulthood. I watched “NBA Inside Stuff” religiously on Saturday mornings, read about Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in “Sports Illustrated,” spent my meager earnings from my Dunkin’ Donuts weekend shifts on Walter Iooss’ lush “Rare Air,” the coffee table book of Jordan images.
The first night my husband and I spent away from our first daughter was to see Jordan with the Washington Wizards against the Boston Celtics. No, it wasn’t the same as six-titles-in-eight-years Jordan, but we still got to say we saw MJ play. We were such known Jordan fans that friends wondered if our daughter’s name (Jordan) is a tribute to him. We still occasionally do the Bulls’ pre-game huddle “What time is it? Game time! Hoo!” to each other.
At some point, though, we realized that Jordan was a player and only wanted to be a player — using his global platform to speak out on behalf of the African American plight was not something he wanted to do.
In hindsight, he can somewhat be forgiven. While athletes of the Civil Rights era, like Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Muhammad Ali were unafraid to speak up, by the 1980s Black athletes weren’t nearly as vocal.
Jordan has acknowledged that he only wanted to focus on basketball. There was also a money motivator to it: The 80s were when athletes started getting huge deals with shoe companies, and if you wanted those endorsement checks to keep rolling in, it was probably best to keep quiet. Air Jordans elevated the star as an icon beyond the court.
As Jordan once and for all confirmed earlier this year, he did once joke to friends, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” It’s why he didn’t publicly endorse Harvey Gantt, a Black Democrat, to unseat Republican incumbent Jesse Helms, whose racism was well known, in the 1990 North Carolina Senate race. As a favorite son of the Tar Heel State, Jordan’s backing would have helped Gantt.
But in recent years we’ve seen a welcome and significant shift back to the days of athletes using their popularity to push for good. The women of the WNBA started it in 2016 after Philando Castile was killed by Minneapolis police, Colin Kaepernick followed, and some of the biggest names in the athletics world have stepped to the fore, which is both hard to ignore and gives tacit permission to those who might be hesitant to add their voice and make the chorus louder.
In a welcome development, Jordan has followed.
We saw it again on Monday evening, when Jordan and NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin announced that they are starting a NASCAR team that will have as its driver Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver on the sport’s top circuit.
In a statement announcing the development, Jordan leaned into the racial aspects of why he’s involved:
“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners,” Jordan said. “The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”
It is great to see. We can be cynical and criticize Jordan for taking so long to come around, or we can be happy that he’s here now, putting his money and more importantly his name behind initiatives meant to uplift Black lives in America.
Jordan and the Jordan Brand announced a $100 million pledge in early June, to be spread out over a decade, to help organizations dedicated to social justice and racial equality; the first donations went to the NACCP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Black Voters Matter and the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted Peoples and Families Movement.
He had previously donated $1 million to the Legal Defense Fund in 2016, after Castile and Alton Sterling were killed; at the same time, he gave $1 million to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, money that was used on intensive programs aimed at building a better relationship between police and communities.
Yes, there’s financial gain to be had for Jordan in this, but running a NASCAR garage, even one with just one driver, is a costly endeavor. The great Shirley Chisholm said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” and Jordan is getting his seat.
A seat at the table means his voice will be in the room, which is the best way to advocate for change. Having Jordan and Wallace on the same team will undoubtedly bring more interest from Black sports fans to NASCAR, but race tracks need to encourage inclusivity — Wallace has wanted to see that change, but with Jordan, it can happen faster and with more depth. Banning the Confederate flag was a good start, but NASCAR’s fan base is 75 percent white and just 9 percent Black, per an AP report.
After the death of George Floyd in late May at the hands of Minneapolis police, Jordan released a statement saying he was “truly pained and plain angry” by the killing, and shortly after, in an interview with the Charlotte Observer, he said experiencing racism “sucks your soul.”
“This is a tipping point. We need to make a stand,” Jordan said.
He may have joined in the later rounds, but Jordan standing in the fight makes us all stronger.
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