If I can help somebody, as I travel along
If I can help somebody, with a word or song
If I can help somebody, from doing wrong
No, my living shall not be in vain
Those lyrics, sung by gospel legend Mahalia Jackson and later paraphrased by Martin Luther King Jr. in the “Drum Major Instinct” the speech that ultimately served as his own eulogy are the roots of activism. They can bear bountiful fruit among the rich and famous who easily could lead selfish, self-centered and self-serving lives, totally unconcerned about conditions outside their privileged circle.
Hollywood has produced its fair share of activists, from Charlton Heston and Elizabeth Taylor to Samuel L. Jackson and Ronald Reagan. The music industry also has delivered a list of issue-driven advocates, from Barbara Streisand to Bono and Willie Nelson to Harry Belafonte. TV stars have leaped off the small screen to fight for causes, too, from Oprah Winfrey and Jesse Williams to Michael J. Fox and Dennis Miller.
The fourth pillar of our celebrity culture sports doesn’t make room for the outspoken as easily.
There have been notable exceptions, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, but athletes traditionally have been encouraged to limit their public comments to sports, period. Refraining from social and political commentary supposedly is better for their team and their career, even more when their thoughts run contrary to prevailing views in owners’ suites.
No one was bigger or kept quiet longer than Michael Jordan. (OK, maybe Tiger Woods).
But that ended Monday when Jordan released a statement on “the divisive rhetoric and racial tensions that seem to be getting worse as lf late. “I know this country is better than that, and I can no longer stay silent,” he said. “We need to find solutions that ensure people of color receive fair and equal treatment AND that police officers — who put their lives on the line every day to protect us all — are respected and supported.”
Along with his statement, Jordan announced he is donating $1 million each to the Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “Although I know these contributions alone are not enough to solve the problem, I hope the resources will help both organizations make a positive difference,” he said.
He wants to “help.” Now.
More than 20 years after the height of His Airness in leading Chicago to six titles in eight seasons. After Harvey Gantt Failed to wrest a Senate seat from racist Jesse Helms. After Rodney King starred in the first viral video of racist cops’ indefensible behavior. After Bill Clinton’s racist crime bill imposed life sentences on $20 drug dealers.
Some commentators have dismissed Jordan’s turnaround as too little, too late, claiming he wasted an opportunity to be his generation’s Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Arthur Ashe rolled into one. Other critics have lambasted his donation to the newly formed police group, claiming the money would be better served with groups representing the victims of police violence instead of the perpretrators.
The view from here: Better late than never.
It’s better for Jordan to take a shot and miss, than to remain on the sideline while less luminous figures fire away. Even though he failed to offer his voice on numerous occasions before, much work remains to be done. There are plenty of unmanned oars, so he can just grab one and start rowing.
Most important is that he’s on the right side of history, viewing events and circumstances accurately. There’s always the possibility that folks who speak out — celebrities or otherwise — won’t see the plain truth in front of them, let alone the layers of subtext and context surrounding it.
Take, for instance, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who told ESPN’s The Undefeated that “all lives matter.” But he also said, “I don’t think it’s the white players’ obligation to speak up” regarding the spate of black men killed at the hands of the police.
So you can make a distinction and say “Blue lives matter” without discounting all lives or any particular group. But the same isn’t true if you say “Black lives matter?” That makes no sense at all, yet Sherman has every right to his position and a spotlight to deliver it.
Be careful what you ask for, and be ready to trash it, whenever you invite folks to participate in conversation. For all we know, Jordan might’ve said some real stupid stuff had he spoken up any sooner. He might’ve come across like his friend Charles Barkley often sounds.
But celebrities have platforms and they’re free to use them, athletes included. Jordan reportedly has been much more active than we knew, donating to political campaigns and hiring people of color. He spoke out against former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and against the anti-LGBT bill in North Carolina.
A spokeswoman told The Undefeated that Jordan has a long, established commitment to diversity. “But he’s always been very private and personal about many of these things,” she said.
That works, too. You needn’t shout from the roof every time you help somebody.
But more people could be encouraged to do likewise when stars like Jordan do the right thing and make it known.
If not now, when?