Silent No Longer: Behind an Unexpected Civil Rights Gift by an NBA Legend

Six-time NBA champion and immortal Chicago Bull Michael Jordan earned $110 million in 2015, according to Forbes, and is the richest black American not named Oprah, or private equity mogul Robert F. Smith.

Still racking in huge money years removed from playing, his Airness currently has a net worth of $1.14 billion. Interestingly enough, though, Jordan was the NBA's highest-paid player only twice during his 15-year career. Luckily, there's his longtime endorsement relationships with Gatorade, Hanes and Upper Deck. There's also Nike, which generates $2 billion in revenue annually from the Jordan Brand, as well as his ownership of the Charlotte Hornets.

Speaking of brands, Jordan has taken great pains to cultivate his, even as it has sometimes invited criticism. Many years ago, Michael Jordan declined to endorse Harvey Gantt, the black mayor of Charlotte running for the U.S. Senate, and allegedly quipped that "Republicans buy sneakers, too." For some, those four words have come to sum up MJ's apparent preference for protecting his brand and image at the expense of speaking out on social issues.

Jordan's approach contrasts with that of older sports legends like the late boxer Muhammad Ali, football player Jim Brown, and Lakers big man Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Not too long ago, in fact, Abdul-Jabbar provided a critique of Jordan, saying, “You can’t be afraid of losing shoe sales if you’re worried about your civil and human rights. He took commerce over conscience. It’s unfortunate for him, but he’s gotta live with it.”

Well, MJ just spoke up in a newsworthy way, both with words and $2 million to boot. Jordan gave grants of $1 million each to two organizations "working to build trust between law enforcement and the communities in which they work."

A grant of $1 million will be directed to the Institute for Community-Police Relations, which was launched in May by the International Association of Chiefs of Police to execute recommendations made in the report of the President’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing. Another $1 million will go to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), which was established in 1940 to work through the legal system to push for civil rights. LDF has been working in places like Ferguson, North Charleston, Baltimore and New York City, and is engaged in "efforts to promote transformative policing practices in their communities."

With MJ's money also came some measured words:

As a proud American, a father who lost his own dad in a senseless act of violence, and a black man, I have been deeply troubled by the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement and angered by the cowardly and hateful targeting and killing of police officers. I grieve with the families who have lost loved ones, as I know their pain all too well.

Jordan's philanthropy over the years is difficult to track. According to one source, he's been involved with organizations like Boys' and Girls' Clubs of America, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, UNCF/College Fund, and the Special Olympics. He once had a charity called the Michael Jordan Foundation, though it shuttered in the 1990s while Jordan was still dominating on the court.  

It's worth noting that Jordan's move comes on the heels of other athletes who've turned to activism in a way that's reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s. Not too long ago, current face of the NBA Lebron James, along with Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and others, suited up in "I Can't Breathe" apparel. WNBA players have also donned Black Lives Matter t-shirts, temporarily incurring a fine. And just this week, Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony led a forum between community members, politicians and police at the Challengers Boys & Girls Club in Los Angeles.

Melo also weighed in on Jordan's move, saying, "I thought it was brilliant, and about time that he stepped up... because at the end of the day, amongst us, he is our face. He’s a very powerful African-American. So for him to step up in the midst of these times right now, it was very big on his behalf.”

In a big scholarship gift by Lebron in his native Ohio, I noted how some athletes are becoming increasingly interested in how they can make their mark outside of the athletic realm. In addition to using their words and influence, directing their wealth toward significant philanthropy might be another way to leave a mark. It's possible that these forces also motivated Jordan to step into the arena this time around. 

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