The United States today is in the thick of a contentious and acrimonious presidential election. In both tone and content, the public conversation has crossed over into controversial, unfamiliar territory. There is a shortage of leaders who, while confronting sensitive issues, can collectively channel our grief, express our concerns, and strengthen us in the face of danger.
When it comes to addressing matters that specifically involve race and law enforcement, it’s worth asking who is currently best situated to step in to fill this leadership vacuum in American society, and why.
It’s a hard question to answer. Together, race and law enforcement form such a delicate combination of issues that no matter who summons the courage to speak about these matters, the message is likely to be met with a volatile and emotionally charged response. This is especially true in light of the two racially charged shootings involving police personnel posted online this past summer, followed by the incident in Dallas in which a gunman killed five police officers. All of these incidents were too horrific to comprehend and caused a justifiable sense of sadness and rage throughout the country. I join the many who extend deepest condolences to the victims and their families.
In the aftermath of these terrible events, I found myself wondering who is best suited to offer a message of hope and unity that will be universally accepted? Is it a president or a presidential hopeful? Or perhaps a radio commentator or a high-profile professional athlete?
When President Barack Obama told reporters that the Dallas shooting was “a wrenching reminder of the sacrifices that [law enforcement] make for us,” many of his critics were quick to point out the seeming contradiction in his previous statements supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
Conversely, when Joe Walsh, a former Illinois Congressman and now a controversial radio host, tweeted that Obama and “Black Lives Matter punks” should “watch out” as “real America is coming after you,” he was deservedly scorned for his threatening tone and aggressive word choice.
When WNBA players wore T-shirts honoring Black Lives Matter, they were fined by their league, were publicly criticized, and provoked a walk-off by off-duty police officers working security for a Minnesota Lynx game.
Most recently, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem to protest race relations in America. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,” Kaepernick later said about his actions. Much like the WNBA players before him, Kaepernick’s actions were met with tremendous scrutiny and outrage (although his jersey is now the No. 1 seller among NFL players in the U.S.). President Obama commented on the controversy by saying Kaepernick was “exercising his constitutional right to make a statement,” adding that he would prefer to see young people engage themselves in the argument instead of “just sitting on the sidelines.”
Given the public’s response, the role of public consoler seems to have fallen at the moment to former NBA star Michael Jordan. Jordan, arguably the greatest sports icon of our time, made headlines in July when he pledged $1 million each to two organizations that have been working to improve the increasingly fractured relationship between law enforcement and African-American communities.
But it wasn’t just the dollar value of these pledges—made to the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund—that grabbed the public’s attention. It was the fact that Jordan, who in the past has been criticized for remaining silent on matters concerning race, decided to insert himself into the national conversation.
In his op-ed for The Undefeated, a new ESPN vertical that focuses on the role race plays in sports and culture, Jordan wrote that he was “saddened and frustrated by the divisive rhetoric and racial tensions that seem to be getting worse as of late.”
He added: “I know this country is better than that, and I know I can no longer stay silent.”
Though everybody has a right to speak freely about this issue, not everybody’s words are capable of staking out common ground. Walsh’s posturing and repugnant statements have no place inside this important conversation. As for Obama, try as he might, the current political climate is in such a state that he’s bound to be excoriated for almost anything he says, and especially so when it concerns race.
Why has Jordan’s message of social unity been so well received? Prior to the op-ed, it’s a topic the athlete has avoided. He chose not to comment on the Rodney King riots in 1992. In 1996, in his home state of North Carolina, he reportedly declined to support Harvey Gantt, an African-American Democrat, in a Senate race against Jesse Helms, whose views on race were controversial. His reason, as has been reported, was “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” (His Air Jordan brand for Nike continues to make hundreds of millions of dollars each year.)
NBA legend and social commentator Kareem Abdul-Jabbar subsequently criticized Jordan for taking “commerce over conscience.” Whether it is Jordan’s place to endorse a political candidate is ultimately his decision. But his words hold weight, and Jordan is a beloved figure.
Despite being retired for more than a decade, a recent Harris Poll listed him as the greatest sports star of all time. To me, this is the reason his recent actions were met not with scorn but with admiration from the public at large. He’s a natural leader, both on the court and in business (he co-owns the Charlotte Hornets). He also commands respect and admiration.
The words he used to carry this national dialogue were perfect: “The problems we face tonight didn’t happen overnight and won’t be solved tomorrow.” His message was direct: By working together we can effect the change this country is in need of.
“His Airness”—the noble nickname by which Jordan’s fans know him—couldn’t have said it any better.