Professional athletes can be incredibly powerful public relations tools for social justice organizations and causes. Earlier this year Scott Cacciola, an NBA reporter at The New York Times, wrote an article highlighting the different approaches star athletes have taken to address potentially divisive social issues. In July, Michael Jordan made a statement about the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police officers and the murder of law enforcement officials. This was in response to the violent and tragic incidents in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas. Jordan, an NBA owner and perhaps the league’s greatest ever player, also made $1 million donations to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Institute for Community-Police Relations.
For Jordan, this was a rare foray into the advocacy world. In 1990, Jordan’s endorsement was heavily courted by Democratic Senate candidate Harvey Gantt in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina. Gantt was aiming to be the first African-American Senator elected in the South since Reconstruction and his opponent, the incumbent Jesse Helms, had an atrocious record on race, which included leading an unsuccessful filibuster against making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. Jordan declined to help Gantt’s campaign.
It’s hard to argue that Jordan’s relatively cautious approach to speaking out on potentially divisive issues has hurt him. According to Forbes, he’s worth an estimated $1.1 billion, and is the only African-American majority owner in the NBA and the face of a number of prominent international brands. With that being said, iconic figures like Jordan wield potentially tremendous influence on social justice issues when they choose to use it. This is why he was courted by the Gantt campaign and why current NBA star and outspoken social justice advocate Carmelo Anthony applauded his statement on violence over the summer. For high-profile figures like Jordan, the trick is weighing the potential personal costs of engaging in advocacy on divisive social issues with the benefit their voice will lend to the cause.