To many kids who grew up in my generation, they remember Michael Jordan as the greatest player ever to play the game as he won six NBA championships during my childhood. Contrasting Jordan to Charles Barkley who famously said “I’m not a role model,” Jordan seemed like the polished embodiment of a winner and role model for kids. I still admire Jordan who was an awe-inspiring competitor and put forward a positive image of a modern, educated man.
Jordan, however, broke from a long tradition of social activism among athletes who were often the only popular voices for important causes. Whether it be Muhammad Ali refusing to be drafted in the Vietnam War, Smith and Carlos raising their fists against racial injustice on the medal stand in the 1968 Olympics or Pat Tillman who left a career in the NFL to join the Army Rangers after 9/11, athletes have expressed their right of free expression granted to them as US citizens. In 1990, the black Mayor of Charlotte Harvey Gantt challenged Republican and long-time segregationist Jesse Helms for the US Senate Seat from North Carolina. As the star face for Nike Air Jordans and a hero in his native North Carolina, Jordan was pressed to endorse Gantt. Jordan refused to jump into the fray and (supposedly) responded that, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
I understand Jordan’s business shrewdness and desire to have a bigger appeal than just another black athlete. The 1990’s in many ways were the age of color-blindness and Jordan was a figure that was often displayed to transcend race; all kids wanted to ‘be like Mike.’ In 2014, however, this aversion to controversy rings hollow.
The stars of today’s NBA that grew up with Jordan as a ‘role model,’ have taken a very different approach to the recent police killings of black men. Chicago Bulls point guard and the 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose is the biggest star in his hometown of Chicago since Jordan. Rose donned a black shirt during pregame warmups that read ‘I Can’t Breathe’ in support of Eric Garner, who was choked and died while being arrested by New York City police. Rose has inspired other stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and many players around the NBA to wear the same shirt in violation of league policy this past week. This is exactly the kind of political statement that Jordan would have surely avoided in his day.
Professional sports are a powerful cultural symbol in the United States and have popular appeal beyond just about anything else. In addition to St. Louis Rams players displaying the the ‘Hand up, don’t shoot’ gesture before their game on November 30th, there is a clear shift in players being willing to put their popular appeal and marketability on the line in order to make a civic statement. Whether or not you agree with the statement they are making, these players deserve our respect for their willingness to speak out on important issues and act as citizens in our democracy. Athletes are not just marketing symbols, but real people that should have a voice beyond selling shoes.
Matt Impink is a former US History Teacher and Education Policy Advocate. He is currently a Graduate Student at IU’s School for Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) in Indianapolis and curates the Civic Blog. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets @mrimpink.