Does Michael Jordan’s lack of political activism affect his legacy as the GOAT?

Michael Jordan is the greatest player the NBA has ever seen. I recently wrote an article on how Wilt Chamberlain deserves to be in the GOAT conversation simply because of how he dominated his era and put up individual numbers that will never be seen again.

But as a combination of raw talent, athleticism, and a competitive drive to win and perfect their craft, probably the closest we have ever seen to Michael Jordan was the late great, Kobe Bryant.

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The Last Dance documentary on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ final championship run just aired episodes 5-6 earlier this week, which shifted some of its focus to MJ’s off court issues and spent more time looking at the man outside of the game of basketball.

The episodes looked at Michael Jordan’s gambling on the golf course, as well as a quote that “Republican’s buy sneakers too”. The quote was something that Jordan said on the team bus to teammates Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen regarding whether he would publicly support a democrat politician.

During his playing career Jordan never saw himself as a political activist and never pretended to be one, he didn’t detract from others for wanting to change the world through their words or non-violent protest.

“I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in. But I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player. I wasn’t a politician when I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy. That’s where my energy was.”

Jordan is a legendary sporting figure from a time when scoring political points wasn’t incentivised, and giant banks and corporations weren’t putting out 2-3 minute long commercials virtue signalling about various social issues.

We now live in an era where it is common to see athletes and celebrities all speaking up for a cause; Lebron James, Steph Curry and many others are very outspoken about political and social issues. They are a product of their times, where it is not only accepted but encouraged for players to take a stand on the popular issues of the day and broadcast them to their followers.

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MJ has never wanted to get into the political arena, and why should he? It’s such a polarizing sphere where no matter what view you take you will potentially alienate half of your fans. He puts it accurately when he said:

“If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would never want to be considered a role model. It’s like a game that’s stacked against me. There’s no way I can win.”

Even when reporters manage to drag any form of political commentary out of him, it is normally lukewarm at best which is unacceptable to those on the fringes of the political extremes. It is a growing trend that all public figures are expected to not only be vocal about a cause, but be on the right ‘team’ in order to fit in.

Taylor Swift was famously non-committal on political issues throughout most of her career which infuriated many commentators. It is no longer acceptable for a high profile public figure to keep their political views private, and unfortunately, caving to public pressure is a beast that can never be fed.

Taylor Swift is a great example that no matter what you try to do or who you try to be to appease those on either end of the political spectrum it will never be enough.

When choosing to keep her political views private, headlines like these were common place:

More recently, Taylor Swift has become very outspoken on social and political issues, however as shown in this Guardian article from 2019, it is clear that there will always be those demanding more:

Why are the tentacles of politics and political activism becoming increasingly intertwined with every aspect of our lives from movies, to music, comedy and sports? People are tired of it. Further to the discussion of the main topic of this article – why is it even a factor when discussing who the greatest basketball player of all time is?

Athletes shouldn’t be expected to echo these talking points in order for their achievements to be taken seriously. MJ can’t even express support of Lebron James and say he’s doing an amazing job without receiving criticism – it doesn’t go far enough to appease the mob:

To many NBA fans that are sick of having sports and politics mix, Jordan’s stance is actually refreshing. There was a time where religious and political beliefs were things people skewed towards keeping private. More than any other aspect of our lives, they have the ability to either divide, or bring people together and were considered taboo discussions that risked of destroying friendships and relationships.

MJ was the ultimate competitor on and off the basketball court, and competing and winning was what mattered most, politics weren’t part of the equation for him. He scoffed at teammate Craig Hodges in the lead up to Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers. Jordan’s teammate Craig Hodges suggested that the two teams refuse to take the floor as a political statement. He says Michael Jordan told him he was crazy, and Magic Johnson said, “That’s too extreme, man”.

The Lebron James vs Michael Jordan comparisons will undoubtedly continue long after Lebron’s amazing playing career has come to an end and we can compare the full body of work of both superstars of the game.

However, it is wrong for the media to fawn over Lebron’s role as a social activist on one hand and demonize MJ on the other, when Lebron apparently only chooses to fight battles that won’t affect his brand.

Lebron is vocal about many issues, but the difference is he doesn’t risk being boycotted by large sponsors for what he says; his positions are largely a safe stance that is supported by all of his peers and the companies he deals with. “I don’t think the companies are afraid anymore.” James said. “The companies are realizing and understanding that the athletes, that they have a voice and their voice carries more than dribbling a basketball or swinging a racket”.

Lebron’s legacy as an activist took a major dent recently when he actively went after Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey for tweeting that he supported Hong Kong during the recent protests against China.

“I don’t want to get into a … feud with Daryl but I believe he wasn’t educated about the situation at hand and he spoke,” James said. “Just be careful what we tweet … even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech. But there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too.”

The hypocrisy being that Lebron felt Morey shouldn’t have voiced his opinion on this matter, which directly affected the financial situation of the NBA and by extension, it’s players. By highlighting that there can be negative repurcussions for speaking publicly about what is a perceived social injustice and that Morey should have thought about that before tweeting it, goes against what Lebron has tweeted previously, and drew harsh criticism from basketball fans in HK and around the world:

What it boils down to is, how is it any different when Lebron says “Just be careful what we tweet” (in case it offends China) compared to Michael Jordan saying “Republicans wear sneakers too”. Both comments are essentially saying the same thing: I don’t want to take a personal stance supporting what may be a highly divisive topic that costs me money.

Lebron shouldn’t have to comment on it if he doesn’t want to, but the persona he has built up, and tweets about not staying silent on injustice seem hollow after the situation with HK and Morey put things into perspective.

At the end of the day, regarding the conversation about who the GOAT is, people that see themselves as a political activist above anything else will undoubtedly factor in Lebron’s activities off the court when determining who the Greatest Of All Time is.

However, for people that see themselves as a basketball fan first and foremost, it doesn’t even enter the equation in the slightest and Michael Jordan will always be the greatest to ever lace up and dominate the hardwood, purely because he was the best basketball player of all time.

Written by Peter Arena


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