There was a critical moment in The Last Dance, 2020’s Netflix series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, that had nothing and everything to do with sport.
During the 1990 Senate elections, Jordan was approached to endorse candidate Harvey Gantt in his home state of North Carolina. Gantt was a black Democrat trying to unseat the incumbent Republican Jesse Helms, a racist whose voting history included opposing the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and filibustering for several days to try to prevent a national holiday being named for Martin Luther King.
However, Jordan refused to take a stance publicly, joking that “Republicans buy sneakers, too”. Helms was re-elected, and Jordan’s refusal to intervene haunts him to this day.
“I never thought of myself as an activist,” Jordan said in the documentary’s present-day interviews, reflecting on that election. “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.”
It’s easy to see why Jordan would have made this choice at the time.
At 26, he was basketball’s first bona fide megastar but still just coming into his powers, having won the first of his career total of five NBA MVP awards.
Perhaps he doubted his ability to really effect change outside of the sporting world; perhaps he didn’t want to jeopardise any of his lucrative endorsement deals. Certainly, he was grappling with the pressures of being an idol, and part of being an idol is allowing others to project onto you what they wish.
But even in choosing not to take a stand, Jordan was making a political choice, whether he realised it at the time or not. There will always be a section of the population who want sportspeople to be entertainers and nothing more.
You see this attitude on social media all the time, particularly when a public figure expresses a political opinion: ‘Stick to playing/acting/singing’, an aggrieved person might respond, or ‘I watch sports/comedy/movies to escape politics.’ It is, of course, a privilege to be able to compartmentalise politics, for it to not permeate every aspect of your life; it usually means that the status quo benefits you.
Case in point: The New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who in 2016 declared his support of Donald Trump, saying: “Our friendship goes back many years, and I think that anybody who’s spent more than five minutes with me knows I’m not a political person.”
Fast-forward to 2021 and even Belichick is distancing himself from Trump, turning down the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the wake of Trump supporters’ assault on the Capitol.
Moments of political crisis have nothing to do with sport on the surface, and yet everything to do with what’s best in sport: Leadership, communication, fairness, integrity.
Now, 30 years on from Jordan’s comment, the political climate in the US is more toxic than ever, and white supremacy and racism are somehow even more brazen and shameless than they were in Jesse Helms’s day. At this juncture in history, remaining silent on political issues could prove more costly to your brand than speaking up.
This is not to suggest that being politically active doesn’t require courage, or that some sportspeople don’t pay a steep price for their activism.
While Colin Kaepernick has become an icon and a hero to millions for protesting police brutality, he has also been unemployed since 2016. (He did, however, reach a settlement with the NFL in 2019 for an undisclosed sum.)
That Kaepernick was accused of disrespecting the US flag by kneeling instead of standing during the national anthem has always seemed counterintuitive to those of us raised in a Catholic country, where genuflection is perhaps the most respectful of all gestures.
It serves as a reminder as to how culturally different the US is — or else, of how firmly misdirection and spin has taken hold in American public discourse.
Kaepernick’s example also serves to show the limits of athlete activism, and of symbolic protest. What Kaepernick did was brave and impactful, but when removed from its original context, taking a knee loses its power.
It doesn’t cost Premier League players anything to kneel before games.
At best, it’s a well-meaning gesture of solidarity, but it’s too polite to be effective. Protest is meaningful because it causes disruption and discomfort; once it becomes the status quo, its meaning is diluted, even warped.
Sometimes, though, athlete activism might just save a democracy. The collective efforts of the WNBA in the last few years have had incredible impact, both symbolically and in real terms.
Perhaps this isn’t surprising: The WNBA is (obviously) made up of women, many of whom are black and a number of whom are openly gay. You would be hard pressed to find a more politically motivated group of people in Trump’s America.
In 2016, even before Kaepernick first took a knee, WNBA players wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts and spoke out against police brutality. When the WNBA fined the players for breaking uniform regulations, they banded together and held media blackouts, forcing the league to ultimately drop the fines.
kept thinking about the amazing job the players of @WNBA have done for others. Not just w @AtlantaDream but for yrs around cause & #socialresponsibility. great examples of #leadership we need to recognize & praise & support more. #sportsbiz #warnock #NBA pic.twitter.com/2m6PVqtdCf
— Joe Favorito (@joefav) January 6, 2021
The WNBA can also claim some credit for Georgia turning blue in November, and certainly for the victory of Rev Raphael Warnock in the recent Senate run-off election.
At the heart of this effort was the Atlanta Dream, who, since 2010, have been co-owned by Republican senator and staunch Trump ally Kelly Loeffler. But in August of last year, after Loeffler attacked the WNBA’s social justice initiatives, the Dream retaliated by wearing Vote Warnock t-shirts at their next game.
While Warnock was then viewed as an outside candidate, within days of the televised game, his campaign received nearly $240,000 in donations, and rose from single digits in the polls to 21%. As we saw last week, Warnock ultimately unseated Loeffler.
The connections that emanate from this story are numerous and poetic.
Stacey Abrams, the voting rights activist being hailed for her organisational efforts on the ground in Georgia, was also instrumental in bringing the WNBA franchise to Atlanta back in 2008.
Warnock is a senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, the same church where Martin Luther King was pastor. The Atlanta Dream are, of course, named for MLK’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Sometimes (whisper it) sport and history rhyme.