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Michael Jordan isn’t sitting out any more, says protesting athletes ‘shouldn’t be demonized’

Michael Jordan isn’t sitting on the sidelines anymore. (Chuck Burton/Associated Press)

One of the biggest criticisms of Michael Jordan over the years has been his reluctance to weigh in on important political and social issues.

Increasingly, though, that has been changing. The Hall of Famer, now the billionaire behind Nike’s Jordan Brand and the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, spoke up when Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was forced out in 2014, and again in the summer of 2016, when he condemned the killing of African Americans by police. On Sunday, with NFL players, coaches and owners choosing to make a statement during national anthems across the country, and the NBA in the spotlight because of President Trump’s “uninvite” of the Golden State Warriors to the White House, Jordan added his voice.

“One of the fundamental rights this country is founded on was freedom of speech, and we have a long tradition of nonviolent, peaceful protest. Those who exercise the right to peacefully express themselves should not be demonized or ostracized,” he said in a statement. “At a time of increasing divisiveness and hate in this country, we should be looking for ways to work together and support each other and not create more division. I support Commissioner Adam Silver, the NBA, its players and all those who wish to exercise their right to free speech.”

Generally, Jordan has chosen to accept criticism for silence rather than speak out at times when his voice would have carried real weight. A native of North Carolina, Jordan publicly sat out the political race when Harvey Gantt challenged Sen. Jesse Helms in the early 1990s. When it came down to Air Jordan vs. Gantt-Helms, the shoes won, with the famous comment “Republicans buy shoes, too” credited to Jordan in Sam Smith’s 1995 book “Second Coming.” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a longtime activist who still speaks on social issues, ripped him for choosing “commerce over conscience.”

His comments of 2017 may be more corporate-speak than passionate, but the point remains that he is saying something. It took Jerry Richardson, the owner of the Carolina Panthers, until Monday afternoon to speak up with a statement on the NFL protests. Jordan may speak through statements, but, like so many other athletes and former athletes, he is realizing that he “can no longer remain silent.” In a lengthy statement given to The Undefeated in July 2016, Jordan wrote of the 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.” Jordan added that he was donating $1 million each to the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s newly established Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

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“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,” his statement to The Undefeated said in part.

“I was raised by parents who taught me to love and respect people regardless of their race or background, so I am saddened and frustrated by the divisive rhetoric and racial tensions that seem to be getting worse as of late. I know this country is better than that, and I can no longer stay silent. 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.

“Over the past three decades I have seen up close the dedication of the law enforcement officers who protect me and my family. I have the greatest respect for their sacrifice and service. I also recognize that for many people of color their experiences with law enforcement have been different than mine. I have decided to speak out in the hope that we can come together as Americans, and through peaceful dialogue and education, achieve constructive change.”

Jordan went on to add: “We are privileged to live in the world’s greatest country — a country that has provided my family and me the greatest of opportunities. The problems we face didn’t happen overnight and they won’t be solved tomorrow, but if we all work together, we can foster greater understanding, positive change and create a more peaceful world for ourselves, our children, our families and our communities.”

Because he’s Michael Jordan, his words carry weight and he apparently is finding a comfort level at using his power. There have been hints that this evolution might be coming over the last few years. Jordan spoke strongly about Sterling, whose racist comments forced him to sell the Clippers in 2014. “As an owner, I’m obviously disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views,” he said at the time. “ … As a former player, I’m completely outraged.”

Jordan was similarly vocal when North Carolina’s so-called bathroom bill caused the NBA to move the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte.

“As my organization has stated previously, the Charlotte Hornets and Hornets Sports & Entertainment are opposed to discrimination in any form, and we have always sought to provide an inclusive environment. As has been the case since the building opened, we will continue to ensure that all fans, players and employees feel welcome while at work or attending NBA games and events at Time Warner Cable Arena.”

Jordan was never willing to be Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised gloved fists in a Black Power protest during the tumultuous 1960s. He was never going to be Muhammad Ali, who was willing to raise awareness by speaking truth to power with uncomfortable words like: “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me [the n-word].”

But, clearly, events are changing him.

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