After maintaining an uncomfortable political silence for decades, basketball icon Michael Jordan Monday denounced the spate of highly-publicized police shootings of Black civilians.
“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 wrote in letter published exclusively on The Undefeated, a platform self-described as covering the intersections of race, sports and culture. “I grieve with the families who have lost loved ones, as I know their pain all too well.”
Jordan has long drawn criticism from Black communities in the United States and is almost as well-known for his refusal to support liberal political causes as he is for his athletic accomplishments. The NBA star famously rebuked his mother’s entreaties to endorse Black Democrat Harvey Gantt’s unsuccessful 1990 bid to unseat the Republican incumbent in the Carolina Senate race, Jesse Helms, because “Republicans buy shoes too.”
In 1995 — the same year he returned to the NBA after a 17-month retirement and a year before Gantt ran another unsuccessful Senate campaign against Helms — Jordan refused to attend the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., reportedly saying to a friend “I take care of my kids.” The secular civil rights march had been called by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to unite African American communities in the face of an “increasingly conservative and hostile climate growing in America towards the aspirations of Black people” at the time — a description troublingly similar to the increasing racial polarization and ongoing systemic violence against people of color in the United States today.
Jordan has also garnered criticism for backing the prison-industrial-complex by investing in private, for-profit prisons as part of his financial portfolio. In a 2015 interview with NPR, fellow basketball legend Kareen Abdul Jabaar criticized Jordan for picking profits over political consciousness. “You can’t be afraid of losing shoe sales if you’re worried about your civil and human rights,” he said.
During the 1996 NBA Finals, when reporters asked about the alleged abuse of child workers, Jordan's answer infuriated some: "I think that's Nike's decision to do what they can to make sure everything is correctly done. I don't know the complete situation. Why should I? I'm trying to do my job."
According to Forbes, Jordan topped the list of highest-paid retired athletes in 2015 and was set to rake in about US$30 million more than any other retired or active athlete in 2016.
While his new statement begins by speaking out against police brutality, Jordan also called for defense of police officers in line with the polemical “Blue Lives Matter” response to the shooting of five cops in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge.
“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 everyday to protect us all – are respected and supported,” he wrote.
“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,” he added, describing an experience that has not been shared by scores of Black Lives Matter activists that have faced police repression when they flood the streets to protest the brutal deaths of their community members or acquittals of killer cops.
“I also recognize that for many people of color their experiences with law enforcement have been different than mine,” Jordan continued. “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.”
The NBA star claimed that he can “no longer stay silent” while being “saddened and frustrated by the divisive rhetoric and racial tensions that seem to be getting worse as of late.”
Jordan announced that he is making two US$1 million donations, one to the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Institute for Community-Police Relations and the second to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Critics argue that police-community relations approaches are a narrow and short-sighted response to systemic problems that call for an overhaul in policing practices and legal accountability, not a shallow public relations effort aimed at smoothing over police forces’ sullied images among communities that have fallen victim to policing practices that can best be described as racist and inherently anti-poor.
For many, Jordan’s words have come as too little, too late. Critics on social media blasted the billionaire for making another profit-inspired move to make good with potential sneaker-buyers and choosing to donate to the causes he did instead of giving back directly to Black communities. Others welcomed the step. Some quipped that racial tensions must have hit a fever pitch if even the notoriously silent Michael Jordan has spoken up.
Jordan closed his statement calling for cooperation to “foster greater understanding, positive change and create a more peaceful world.”