Michael Jordan has never been interested in leveraging his very-visible platform into public stances. That’s not a criticism as much as a fact — though it hasn’t stopped other more socially conscious NBA Hall of Famers from taking shots at Jordan, who was and still might be the most famous athlete in the world.
“You can’t be afraid of losing shoe sales if you’re worried about your civil and human rights,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said of Jordan during an HBO documentary last year. “He took commerce over conscience. It’s unfortunate for him, but he’s gotta live with it.”
Jabbar, of course, was referring to Jordan’s (in)famous claim that “Republicans buy sneakers too.” That came during the lead-up to the 1990 North Carolina Senate race between Democrat Harvey Gant and Republican Jesse Helms. Helms was a race-baiter who opposed the notion of a national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. Gant was the black former Mayor of Charlotte and was hoping to receive some campaign help from Charlotte’s most famous black son.
Instead, he got a quip about consumerism. Jordan’s true priorities were revealed. Some, such as Jabbar and other black athletes like Bill Russell who helped lead the civil rights battle, were irked by Jordan’s passivity. Others have made the case that becoming the first billionaire athlete, which he eventually did, was actually the most effective way for Jordan to go about fostering change. He could obtain real power and address some of the issues from the inside.
On March 17, 2010, Jordan became the majority owner of the then-Charlotte Bobcats, making him the first former NBA player to hold said title. According to a 2013 study, Jordan was the lone black principal owner in all four major American professional sports leagues.
Which all brings us to where we are today. Last week, the North Carolina legislature passed a bill barring transgender people from using public bathrooms that do not match the gender listed on their birth certificates. It was essentially a bill legalizing discrimination.
Where does Jordan enter the fray? It just so happens that next year’s NBA All-Star Game is scheduled to take place in Charlotte. The league, which has historically been the most progressive and active of all the country’s major sports corporations, quickly issued a statement condemning the bill and deploying next year’s All-Star Game as leverage.
NBA Statement Regarding Legislation Recently Signed Into Law In North Carolina pic.twitter.com/xwoOo9MyeR
— NBA (@NBA) March 24, 2016
You can read all the fancy language here. The essential message, though, was a simple one: Cut the shit or we’re taking away your game.
But the league can’t attack or defeat a North Carolina bill by itself. To make an actual difference, to truly hold the state legislature to the fire, the NBA will need on-the-ground support. It will need the owner and face of the local franchise, the one who was no doubt going to be front and center at the All-Star Weekend festivities, to step in for the cause. It will need Michael Jordan to step into the very spotlight he’s spent decades avoiding.
The Charlotte Hornets have issued the following statement: pic.twitter.com/5IOzSjjncM
— Charlotte Hornets (@hornets) March 25, 2016
Sure, the Hornets can keep putting out team statements condemning the bill like the one they did last week. But at some point, if the NBA plans on following through on its word and taking up this cause, Jordan is going to have to personally step in and attach his name to something.
(At this point it might not even matter what Jordan’s personal feelings are about the bill. What’s he going to do, go against Adam Silver and the league?)
It’s worth noting that in recent years, Jordan has stepped out from the shadows, at least a bit. He hosted a major fundraiser for Barack Obama in 2012 and, while it might ring a bit hypocritical given the role he played in helping players obtain some collective bargaining wins, he’s also reportedly emerged as a strong voice on the NBA owner’s labor-relations committee.
But this bill, this issue, this cause — it’s a whole different beast. This wouldn’t be Jordan fighting racism or poverty, both issues he likely understands, or even gay rights, something that at this point the majority of Americans seems to be in favor of. No, this is about transgender people, a group of people that could probably be classified as the most misunderstood in the country, that you don’t have to travel very far to find opposition to or hatred of.
Is that a battle Michael Jordan is willing to step into?