Keeping His Distance From Social Issues
Despite his ever-growing wealth and influence, Jordan has never shown much interest in shaping the world that lies at his feet. He carefully dodged any political issue that might have jeopardized his family-friendly image. When asked in 1992 about the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, for instance, Jordan lamely replied: “I need to know more about it.” He refused to take a side in the tight 1990 North Carolina Senate race in which Jesse Helms, despised by many blacks, was challenged by a black man, Harvey Gantt. Approached by Gantt’s campaign, Jordan declined to get involved, reportedly offering this explanation: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
That statement is quintessential Jordan. Jordan has remained devoutly apolitical. He has never used his platform to pursue social or political change; indeed, he’s gone out of his way to play it safe. This is, of course, precisely how the corporations he endorses want it. Politics and successful marketing don’t mix. (Jordan has recently been quietly supporting Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley, but that appears to be a favor to Jordan’s former coach and Bradley pal Phil Jackson.)
Informed punditry may be too much to expect of pro athletes. Yet Jordan has also dodged matters over which he has a more direct influence. As inner-city leaders decried the $150 price tag on his Nike Air Jordan sneakers, which are targeted at the kids who can least afford them, Jordan never spoke up. By contrast, in 1996 NBA forward Chris Webber publicly feuded with Nike about the cost of shoes it sold in his name.
Better known is Jordan’s shoulder-shrug over Nike’s allegedly exploitative labor practices in Southeast Asia. Jordan first said it wasn’t his problem, but later said he would travel to Asia, explaining that “if it’s an issue of slavery or sweatshops, [Nike executives] have to revise the situation.” Yet even after acknowledging the specter of “slavery,” Jordan never made the trip.
Yes, he has done his share of good works. Jordan has donated millions to charity and to his alma mater, the University of North Carolina. Every year he visits with dozens of dying children whose last wish it is to meet him. If there’s a heaven, he will surely be rewarded there. But there are still places of hell on Earth and much more Jordan could do with his money and power. Yet he has made no deeper effort to take advantage of his unique cultural pedestal.
Jordan’s avoidance of social issues hasn’t escaped criticism. Several well-known pro athletes—including such black champions as Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown and Hank Aaron—have knocked Jordan for being politically aloof. “He’s more interested in his image for his shoe deals than he is in helping his own people,” Brown said of Jordan in 1992.
Asked in January whether he would become more politically active now that he’s retired, Jordan answered: “I can’t save the world by no means.”
But there’s plenty of room between saving the planet and doing nothing. Jordan might, as Brown has, insist on more blacks in sports management. Or, as Jesse Jackson does, he could press for more corporate hiring and investment in black communities. Or he could sponsor ads reminding kids that school is a safer route to success than basketball. Or he could speak out against handguns with the moral authority of a man whose father was killed by one.
In fairness, Jordan is no exception among his contemporaries. His equivalents in other sports—Tiger Woods, Ken Griffey, Jr., Mark McGwire—aren’t known for their political engagement, either. But it’s not unheard-of for modern-day athletes to take political stands. His outspoken Bulls teammate Craig Hodges once showed up at a White House ceremony in a dashiki with a letter for George Bush on the plight of the inner cities. “I can’t go and just be in an Armani suit and not say shit,” Hodges later told The Village Voice.
In 1993, NBA forward Olden Polynice staged a hunger strike to protest U.S. policy toward his native Haiti. Though they were second-tier players, both Hodges and Polynice drew national media coverage nevertheless. Imagine what Michael Jordan could do with a single television ad or press conference! As Jesse Jackson told The Washington Post in 1996: “If [sports stars] can sell these wares with the power of their personas, they also can sell civic responsibility with the power of their personas.”
And the fact remains that Jordan is not the same as Tiger Woods or Mark McGwire. No one else has achieved his global stature, his corporate clout.
In the end, perhaps Michael Jordan simply reflects our times in much the way that Muhammad Ali epitomized the values of the 1960’s. Just as Ali was a symbol for the social and political energy of his day, so Jordan stands for the apathy and commercialism of our times. Ali was a rebel. Jordan is a brand name. After all, a recorded message at Jordan’s personal office informs callers that “the majority of Michael Jordan fan mail and autograph requests will be acknowledged by Nike, Inc.”
So perhaps in worshipping Michael Jordan we are celebrating nothing less than capitalism itself. The winner takes all, and we cheer wildly. Perhaps society will never idolize underpaid idealists and clumsy altruists the way it elevates sports titans like Michael Jordan. But whatever happened to the old maxim that winning isn’t everything?