We’ve been in the midst of non-stop comparisons between LeBron James and Michael Jordan for pretty much all of the 21st century. The debate has largely stayed on-court with fans of each player arguing over championship rings, MVPs and overall dominance. In that regard, the argument for basketball greatest of all time is a matter of preference, but in the court of public opinion in discussing which athlete has been a better leader for Black America, LeBron is clearly dunking on his predecessor. That gap only widened in the last couple of weeks when James was front and center for the opening of his “I Promise” school for at-risk youth in Akron, Ohio.
The press from the school, combined with a LeBron interview in which he said the president was dividing the country and that he wouldn’t ever meet with Donald Trump face-to-face – preferring to visit with Obama instead – led to the president sending a tweet questioning LeBron’s intelligence:
The last sentence’s mention of liking Michael Jordan was supposed to be the final dig at LeBron; a perfect way for Trump to cap off his racist, demeaning tweet. But in that moment, the spotlight shifted to Jordan. Would he speak out against Trump or would he stay silent?
His response? A two-sentence, flaccid, “I support LJ. He’s doing an amazing job for his community.”
Suddenly all of the criticisms against Jordan’s perceived lack of activism over his career came flooding back to Twitter timelines – the reported “Republicans buy sneakers, too” quote that may or may not have actually happened and the long-standing myth that he has invested in private prisons both were echoed without much research about their respective validity.
However, there are true nuanced ways to look at Jordan’s role in the Black community that deserve legitimate scrutiny. Michael Jordan spent his entire career as a neutral public figure on his way to becoming the most popular person in the world. For some, just the fact a Black man could hold such a distinct honor was enough of a revolutionary act. There was never a question if self-hating Black people could ascend to the highest level of fame. We’d known that was possible for decades. Jordan showed us that silent, neutral Black men could be accepted, too. Jordan showed us that if white people loved us enough, they’d let us taste their cigars, wear their wingtips and play on the golf on the courses they’ve built that allow Black people in to play on them.
Jordan, of course, has many charitable donations – donating millions to the African-American History And Culture Museum, putting kids in college and giving $7 million to “medical clinics in poor areas of Charlotte,” North Carolina – that get brought up when he’s criticized for inaction. However, every rich person donates money. Donald Trump donates money. It’s part of rich people’s portfolios. Looking at revolutionary acts through capitalistic-only lenses won’t accomplish much, so a person’s actions that go beyond finances are just as important. And in that realm, Michael Jordan’s portfolio is pretty bare. His response to Trump – tepid, basic and toothless – only perpetuated the belief that Jordan just comes up short in terms of meaningful action.
It’s truer now, in the age of Trump, than ever before that neutrality can no longer be seen as inaction. Silence as children are caged, white supremacists are uplifted and racism is promoted in the White House is an act of complicity. Jordan got a pass for silence during three strikes, the crack epidemic and rising income inequality, but we are all well within our rights to want more from him now.
Michael Jordan doesn’t have to speak out against Donald Trump. He’s also well within his rights to stay silent. He’s earned his money and the right to live how he chooses. But we can also be disappointed in that choice. Jordan’s response to Trump was so swift because he wants no part in any political discourse. Maybe he doesn’t know what to say, exactly. Maybe he doesn’t care. He doesn’t really owe us an explanation just like we don’t owe him a pass for refusing to speak out against people who hurt us. We can coexist in this space between accepting Jordan and him fighting for us.
LeBron James, on the other hand, is something greater than Michael Jordan. James has been defiant, proud and proof that Black people can speak out against hate while still being the most famous athlete in the world. LeBron showed us that it’s okay to love black people loudly while fighting off those who would tell us to “shut up and dribble.”
Whereas Jordan led a generation of celebrities who felt like their presence in white spaces was their charity to Black people, James is spearheading a generation of celebrities untethered to a fear of being accepted by White America. LeBron showed us that we weren’t wrong to want more from Michael Jordan because LeBron also showed us that being more than Michael Jordan is possible. Maybe LeBron’s heights wouldn’t have been as high if not for a Jordan to break down those barriers in the safest ways possible, but I really wish Jordan would at least give it a shot.