Michael Jordan stirred up a bit of controversy earlier in his basketball career with four words that have followed him around even after he retired. Jordan infamously once said “Republicans buy sneakers too” when asked about inserting himself into a United States Senate race back in North Carolina, a quote that came up during episode five of ESPN’s The Last Dance.
The backstory was that Jordan’s mother asked him to appear in a PSA for Harvey Gantt, the former mayor of Charlotte who sought the Senate seat held by Republican Jesse Helms. Jordan explained that he did not know Gantt, so he was not going to do that, but he did make a financial contribution. Soon after, he was asked about this by a reporter, and in jest, Jordan responded by making it sound like he cared about money, regardless of where it came from, more than beating someone like Helms, a racist who proudly and vocally opposed LGBT rights.
Jordan was compared unfavorably to Muhammad Ali, whose years-long commitment to social justice was never up for debate. As he explained, Jordan believed that comparison did not hold water, because he is not the same kind of person as Ali.
“I do commend Muhammed Ali for standing up for what he believed in, but I never thought of myself as an activist, I thought of myself as a basketball player” Jordan said. “I wasn’t a politician when I was playing my sport, I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably, but that was my energy, that’s where my energy was.”
Shortly after, Barack Obama — who, as an aside, is no longer referred to as “Former Chicago Resident” and was referred to in this episode as “President” — was asked about the entire ordeal. He did give Jordan, who was in his 20s at the time, the benefit of the doubt to an extent, but still recalled his disappointment over the quote.
“I’ll be honest, when it was reported that Michael said ‘Republicans buy sneakers too,’ for somebody who was at that time preparing for a career in civil rights law and public life, and knowing what Jesse Helms stood for, you would have wanted to see Michael push harder on that,” Obama said. “On the other hand, he was still trying to figure out, ‘How am I managing this image that has been created around me, and how do I live up to it?’”
Jordan has largely stayed out of politics over the years, although in 2016, he did publish a piece in The Undefeated regarding “the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement and angered by the cowardly and hateful targeting and killing of police officers.” He has, however, followed a similar playbook to the one he followed in 1990, as he’s donated money to assorted state Democratic parties over the years. Additionally, he was a financial supporter for Obama during his 2012 re-election bid, hosting a fundraiser and donating $5,000.
“The way that I go about my life is, I set examples,” Jordan said. “If I inspire you, great. I will continue to do that. If it doesn’t, then maybe I’m not the person that you should be following.”