The Complicated Truth About Michael Jordan and Sticking to Sports

Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan
Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan / MIKE NELSON/Getty Images

"Republicans buy sneakers, too."

It's a statement that follows Michael Jordan to this day.

As we further ascend into an era in which professional athletes are expected, and borderline required, to have opinions that transcend the sports world, ESPN's The Last Dance highlighted MJ's insistence to do the exact opposite, leading modern basketball fans to question why, exactly, Jordan refused to stand up for any cause outside of his jumpshot.

That answer is far more complicated than the Worldwide Leader makes it out to be.

Jordan was raised in an era where few athletes ever put their foot down. In the infamous political standoff between Harvey Gantt, an African-American candidate vying for senator in 1990 against Jesse Helms, who was on record speaking out against the Civil Rights movement decades earlier (and had other offensive viewpoints on race), MJ failed to provide any sort of endorsement or guidance in his home state of North Carolina.

In The Last Dance, Jordan defended his stance, stating he viewed himself solely as a basketball player, and didn't want to speak out of turn on issues he didn't have a full understanding of. While we can respect that viewpoint -- especially in our era months after Daryl Morey commented on the China-Hong Kong debate and cost the NBA millions -- it doesn't fully tell the story. If there's any issue Jordan should have been informed on, it was this one.

The Gantt-Helms race was, for lack of a better analogy, black and white, and a stain on the history of Jordan's home state. His own mother even encouraged him to speak up. Instead, he weighed the (relatively limited) financial impact and opted against it.

Jordan's sales never suffered, and to suggest they'd take a major hit based on a state senatorial race is ludicrous. MJ's reputation recovered from gambling scandals and multiple retirements. He's ever-present in our game decades later, and will continue to do so regardless of political slant, even had he been an unapologetic conservative.

Not every athlete has to act on Muhammad Ali's morals, but to ignore the world around them -- especially considering Jordan was the face of all athletics in his moment -- feels like a wasted opportunity.

MJ didn't invent sticking to sports, but years later he's used as a shining example of what detractors prefer an athlete to be, especially when it doesn't fit their worldview. That, in it's own right, can be used against him.