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In the past few weeks, Michael Jordan has spoken out in favor of Black Lives Matter, pledged to donate $100 million of his own (and Nike’s) money toward social justice causes and now, this week, started a new NASCAR Cup team, making him the first Black majority owner of a fulltime NASCAR team in nearly 50 years.
“In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing,’’ Jordan said in a statement. “The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more.’’
What’s going on here? It’s obvious: Someone has taken over Michael Jordan’s body and is now impersonating him. Somehow, Air Jordan has transformed into Social Justice Jordan.
Has Michael Jordan changed, or is he just blowing with the winds? Anyone who watched Jordan’s career knows that he, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once said, chose “commerce over conscience.’’ BLM meant just one thing, and that’s a campaign to sell shoes: Be Like Mike.
If Jordan has reached some sort of epiphany as he has gotten older, then so be it, good for him. But it’s hard not to wonder if Social Justice Jordan is just the latest Nike campaign or if this is coming straight from his heart.
Or if there’s any difference between those two things. Until recently, it wasn’t clear that Jordan had this sort of heart.
What are we seeing here exactly? Jordan spent his career as the greatest in the world at two things: Basketball and corporate branding. He really could fly at both things.
When he was a player, the times made it harder to be Social Justice Jordan. He didn’t want to jeopardize his own carefully crafted brand. Remember that as a player, he declined to support a Black candidate for Senate over Jesse Helms in his home state of North Carolina because, as he famously said “Republicans buy sneakers, too.’’
Well, sneaker companies buy BLM now, too. With athletes empowered to speak up, it’s safe — maybe profitable? — to be Social Justice Mike. Is MJ following LeBron?
Surely, most people standing up for social causes are just trying to do good. But it’s undeniable that corporate interests such as Nike or Apple or Coke or really any brand try to use BLM to portray themselves as a progressive, hip brand. They do that with progressive values all the time, latching on to liberal causes to sell more shoes, drinks, iphones or whatever.
Maybe that’s just too skeptical. I don’t believe for a minute that Jordan is a puppet. He’s making his own decisions, is his own brand.
Jordan is 57 now, and the majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets. Four years ago, he donated $1 million to the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Institute for Community-Police Relations, and another $1 million to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. At the time, according to Forbes, he “cited the reactive incidents between African Americans and police officers that had caused a subsequent loss of life on both sides.’’
But recently, his public efforts have stepped up. In June, he and Nike’s Jordan Brand announced that they’d donate $100 million over 10 years toward causes that promote racial equality and social justice.
He made the announcement weeks after the killing of George Floyd, which Jordan told the Charlotte Observer was “a tipping point.’’
Upon Floyd’s killing, Jordan issued a statement that he was “deeply saddened, truly pained and plain angry . . . I stand with those who are calling out the ingrained racism and violence toward people of color in our country. We have had enough.’’
And now, this week, he and Denny Hamlin formed the racing team with Bubba Wallace as the driver. Wallace is the only Black driver at NASCAR’s highest level.
Jordan said that he grew up in North Carolina as a NASCAR fan, and that recent changes in NASCAR to be more inclusive made the move appealing.
So which one is Social Justice Jordan? Is he a rich guy at a changing moment in his personal life, trying to do good? Or is he a corporate brand, refreshing his image and jumping aboard an opportunity in a way that wasn’t comfortable for him before?
Maybe in his case, person and brand can’t be separated.