By The Undefeated
Michael Jordan, widely considered the greatest basketball player in NBA history and the lone African-American majority owner of a franchise, has decided to speak out on the country’s growing racial and social unrest.
“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 writes in a one-page letter released exclusively to The Undefeated. “I grieve with the families who have lost loved ones, as I know their pain all too well.”
He used the letter to also announce grants of $1 million each to two organizations working to build trust between law enforcement and the communities in which they work: the Institute for Community-Police Relations, which was launched in May by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which was established in 1940 to work through the legal system to push for civil rights. It became a separate organization from the NAACP in 1957.
Michael Jordan’s full statement
“Although I know these contributions alone are not enough to solve the problem, I hope the resources will help both organizations make a positive difference,” Jordan wrote.
Both groups were informed of the donations Sunday night.
“We’re surprised and shocked, but obviously thrilled,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director of the Legal Defense Fund. “We’ve been working on these issues for some many years, and it’s great to hear that Michael Jordan and his people are aware of our work and are willing to make a contribution.”
Added Terrence Cunningham, the IACP president and chief of the Wellesley, Massachusetts, police department: “What an opportunity for Michael Jordan to do this and help raise the discussion between police and the members of the communities they serve. The IACP aims to provide a toolbox for departments and communities to come together to discuss implicit bias and police legitimacy, and this is an opportunity to help that along.”
Jordan’s statement comes amid a renaissance of social justice advocacy by prominent athletes nationwide, hearkening back to the ’60s when figures such as Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were outspoken on the country’s problems, particularly the status of African-Americans. Current NBA superstars LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade opened the recent ESPYS awards show by imploring their peers to take larger roles in issues of racial injustice, gun violence and police brutality. Anthony will host a town hall meeting in Los Angeles Monday featuring an open dialogue between police, citizens and politicians.
On July 22, the Washington Mystics became the fourth WNBA team to show solidarity over recent police shootings by wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts when they took their home court at Verizon Center before a game against the Los Angeles Sparks. The league originally fined the New York Liberty, Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury $5,000 apiece and their players an additional $500 each for wearing black warmup shirts before games on Thursday, but has rescinded those fines amid growing outrage.
Today’s statement is something of a public milestone for Jordan, who has been criticized over the years for his low profile in political and social advocacy. For instance, Abdul-Jabbar, in a 2015 NPR interview, said, “He took commerce over conscious. That’s unfortunate for him, but he’s got to live with it.”
Jordan has donated to the presidential and senatorial campaigns of Barack Obama, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential campaign and, yes, despite numerous stories to the contrary, Harvey Gantt’s unsuccessful campaign against Sen. Jesse Helms in North Carolina.
For two decades, Jordan has been saddled with a quote attributed to him by an anonymous friend in former Chicago Tribune NBA writer Sam Smith’s 1995 book, The Second Coming, that he didn’t support Gantt because “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” In a later book, Smith said it was a joke, not a political statement and that he felt badly about the backlash Jordan received. But a spokeswoman for Jordan said he denies ever using those words. And a 1996 Charlotte Observer story lists a $4,000 campaign donation made from Jordan to Gantt for his second Senate race.
Friends and advisers have defended Jordan’s social conscience over the years. In an interview last year with TMZ, longtime teammate Ron Harper said, “Some of the stuff he [does] may not get on TV like some other athletes like to portray themselves as conscientious Americans, but my boy MJ … he knows what he’s doing in life. Michael Jordan is caring.”
Lately, he’s also been more publicly vocal about issues of race and discrimination adversely affecting the league.
In 2014, before Donald Sterling was forced to sell the Los Angeles Clippers in the wake of racist statements made over a taped phone recording, Jordan said, “As an owner, I’m obviously disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views … As a former player, I’m completely outraged. There is no room in the NBA – or anywhere else – for the kind of racism and hatred that Mr. Sterling allegedly expressed … In a league where the majority of players are African-American, we cannot and must not tolerate discrimination at any level.”
And just this April, after the anti-LGBT bill in North Carolina began to draw intense criticism and boycotts, Jordan issued a statement from his team that read the “Hornets are opposed to discrimination in any form, and we have always sought to provide an inclusive environment.”
“I applaud Michael Jordan for these donations,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told The Undefeated Monday. “His championing of important social issues including fundamental civil and human rights carries enormous impact in communities everywhere.”
His defenders over the years have argued that Jordan did not have to wage the fight for civil rights and mutual respect that many of his socially conscious predecessors did in the 1960s and early 1970s. They said that Jordan’s ability to amass wealth and power after his playing days was the next rung of activism for the black athlete: the development of an economic blueprint that featured actual majority ownership in an NBA franchise. And with that wealth and power came the ability to not just advocate, but take action.
Today, the Hornets have more people in color holding top front office positions than any other organization in any major sport in North America. Since its inception, the Jordan Brand, valued recently at $2.8 billion by Nike, has always had an African-American CEO.
Jordan’s commitment to diversity, his spokeswoman said, has been long established. “But he’s always been very private and personal about many of these things.”
The decision to go public with his statement and donation was made about two weeks ago, the spokeswoman said. But they delayed an announcement after learning that the NBA would relocate the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte because of North Carolina’s bathroom bill, which doesn’t afford protections to those in the LGBT community. Jordan did not want his announcement to take away from the focus on the LGBT community, she said.
Ifill, from the Legal Defense Fund, is hopeful that a contribution from someone of Jordan’s stature will help bring more awareness to a very important topic that has dominated the headlines this month.
“We’re at a critical moment in our country where people do need to step up,” Ifill said. “It’s important for people who have a profile of a Michael Jordan to step forward and identify this as a critical issue.”
Since the death of Michael Brown two years ago in Ferguson, Missouri, the defense fund has stepped up efforts to help remove bias from policing. The organization has worked closely with the U.S. Department of Justice, which in February help set up a pilot program for procedural justice training in six cities (Minneapolis; Birmingham, Alabama; Gary, Indiana; Pittsburgh; and Stockton, California). Those departments began training to help strengthen the relationship between those departments and the communities they serve.
“The success stories are important because we’ve seen in graphic display recently what’s not working,” Ifill said. “Dallas was making tremendous efforts in initiatives to transform their police department, and we believe those efforts will remain despite the recent tragedy. Every time community and law enforcement groups are willing to step forward and collaborate is important.”
Cunningham’s office was so stunned by the donation that it vetted the source to see if it was indeed Jordan. “What an interesting piece: police, race relations and athletics,” the Wellesley police chief said. “I’m thinking many of the 800,000 police officers were at some point athletes. I’m a white guy from suburbia, and I remember that when I played football it was all about the sport, and racism melted away.”
Writes Jordan in the statement, “Over the past three decades I have seen up close the dedication of the law enforcement officers who protect me and my family. I have the greatest respect for their sacrifice and service. I also recognize that for many people of color their experiences with law enforcement have been different than mine. I have decided to speak out in the hope that we can come together as Americans, and through peaceful dialogue and education, achieve constructive change.”
He added, “I was raised by parents who taught me to love and respect people regardless of their race or background, so I am saddened and frustrated by the divisive rhetoric and racial tensions that seem to be getting worse as of late,” he added. “I know this country is better than that, and I can no longer stay silent. We need to find solutions that ensure people of color receive fair and equal treatment AND that police officers – who put their lives on the line every day to protect us all – are respected and supported.”
Jordan’s father, James Jordan, was murdered in 1993 during a roadside robbery in North Carolina by two men. One of the men convicted in the killing is eligible for parole this year.
Jordan ends his letter with a plea to bridge the divide between law enforcement and the African-American communities they police.
“We are privileged to live in the world’s greatest country – a country that has provided my family and me the greatest of opportunities. The problems we face didn’t happen overnight and they won’t be solved tomorrow, but if we all work together, we can foster greater understanding, positive change and create a more peaceful world for ourselves, our children, our families and our communities.”