Be Like Mike?: The Black Athlete’s Dilemma

Michael Jordan is one of the best basketball players in history and one of the most influential athletes of the twentieth century. He also became one of the richest athletes in the world, listed by Forbes’ magazine as billionaire in 2015 and the majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats – the only African American to do so. Jordan broke social barriers about what a black athlete is capable of and became accepted by the mainstream in the USA. He also costarred a Warner Brother’s movie, Space Jam, borrowed his name for a McDonald’s sandwich, and signed as Nike cover boy, that made the Nike Air Jordan, the most popular sneaker among young boys, specially the black ones who belong to poor areas in big cities.

The information above is a very concise compilation about Jordan’s successful feats. As a public figure, he is much bigger. But during all his career Jordan has been asked about one important thing that is the subject of Joshua Wright’s article: why he never used his position to talk about social responsibility over the black communities, racial discrimination and black social rights in United States and all over the world?

The author argues about Jordan’s apathy toward sociopolitical issues gathering data from many biographies written about him, some declaration he has given to journals, polemics over his figure and by comparing his trajectory with some other successful North American athletes, like Muhammad Ali, Serena William, Tiger Wood and LeBron James.

Jordan was born in 1963 in Brooklyn and then his Family moved to North Carolina, avoiding drugs and gangs problems. He grown up in a middle-class family with more four brothers. He was not aware about the racial tension in that state, bus his parents were never involved in such social and political problems. Even being the contracts between black and white players in basketball world so different and unequal in terms of stability and endorsement deals, he never talked about that. Like when he begun to play in the Texas Western College.

In 1984, the Chicago Bulls, where he had played for twelve years, selected Jordan as the third pick in an NBA draft. The city of Chicago promoted some black athletes as local heroes, but also was considered for years one of the most segregated cities in the North of US.

Jordan retired in 1999 and became the team president of the Washington Wizards NBA franchise. In the 80’s, Washington, D.C. was the murder capital in US due to the crack and cocaine epidemic. Over the years the gentrification improved the city conditions, but poor black communities continued suffering from “rampant violence, high incarceration rates of young black males, and some of the lowest performing public schools in the country”, says Wright. This was the territory where Jordan was living in and didn’t speak anything about. Some people and leaderships believed that his voice could have had a tremendous weight.

The author notices yet a huge difference between generations in what concerns to a public position about any problematic subject. He mentions Todd Boyd, a race and popular culture researcher, who refers to Jordan as “the godfather of today’s ‘generation me’ black athletes, who are overly concerned with money and endorsement deals”. What contrasts with the 60’s generation who thought and fought with a communal ideal. Different from the other black legend, Muhammad Ali, Jordan never publicized his opinions. Ali lost his best years of boxing because of his stance against Vietnam War. In the 1968 Olympic Games, Lew Alcindor, John Carlos e Tom Smith cases showed other athletes how dangerous could be to use the winner public space as a platform to make public statements to press about civil rights and racism.

His absence of the agenda for social and justice is notable because, as notices the author, “Jordan was adored for many reasons. First, Americans love winners and he was the consummate winner. Second, he did not just win, he did it with style and swagger. He carried himself in a manner that appealed to young Black males looking for a hero. […] Such mainstream acceptance has become a burden for Jordan and fellow Black athletes even as it made them incredibly wealthy.”.

Black athletes that comes after Jordan, like Serena Williams, LeBron James, Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant, carried the same burden that has been placed on black athletes following in Jordan’s footsteps.

Bryant has experienced scathing criticism within the black community and doesn’t identified himself with the African American battle. Instead, Williams and James engaged themselves, like in the episode of Ferguson unrest, the protests and riots that began the day after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer.

The author argues that is not possible to compare the protests from the sixties with the newest ones. That ones were much more intense than those promoted in the social medias, like Twitter, by Williams and James.

For the author, Jordan is a symbol of this apathy because of his prominent position. He mention another study, from the scientist Ronald Walters, who compares the position of Tiger Woods with Jordan saying: “lambasted Woods in an op-ed for not speaking out against private golf clubs that excluded blacks, Jews, women, and other minorities for decades and accused him of following in Jordan’s footsteps by remaining quiet on injustices that favored him financially”.

Finally, the author says that the expectations over the athletes are huge and have “to do more with their privileged status in the decades following the civil rights era”. In every case of violence against black people, the public position of these athletes are charged by the victims and activists. And most of them probably see it as a problem or a challenge.

By Perola Mathias


Joshua Wright. A Journal on Black Men, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Spring 2016), pp. 1-19.Indiana University Press.

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