On Monday, basketball great and noted apolitical icon Michael Jordan condemned police violence and the recent killings of police officers while calling for racial unity in the United States. In a statement published on ESPN’s the Undefeated under the headline “Michael Jordan: ‘I Can No Longer Stay Silent,’ ” he wrote:
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.
Later in the statement, the Charlotte Hornets owner announced he would donate $1 million each to the Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Jordan did not elaborate on why he chose this particular moment to speak out and donate money, and he was very careful to avoid offending anyone:
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.
For Jordan, whose reticence in wading into political and social issues is almost as well-known as his ruthless determination to win, this mild message was a radical statement. Jordan established his reputation for staying silent on social issues decades ago when he chose not to endorse black North Carolina Democrat Harvey Gantt in his 1990 Senate race against incumbent Jesse Helms. In 2001, David Broder described Helms as “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country.” (To wit, that 1990 contest was the one in which Helms released his infamous anti-Gantt, anti–affirmative action “White Hands” ad.) Still, Jordan refused to get involved in the race, though an endorsement from North Carolina’s favorite son might have made a difference in a race Gantt ultimately lost by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent.
Legend has it that the Nike pitchman justified his lack of activism with the now infamous line, “Republicans buy shoes, too.” It’s unclear, though, whether he actually said the line. Here’s everything we know.
The quote first appeared in Sam Smith’s 1995 book Second Coming, a chronicle of Jordan’s return from minor-league baseball to the Chicago Bulls. In the book’s preface, Smith detailed Jordan’s borderline-paranoid management of his own image. One example: Jordan requested that reporters not write about how he disliked a childhood job as a maintenance worker as he didn’t “want maintenance men to think [he’s] putting them down.” Then Smith turned to the Gantt–Helms race:
Another time, he was approached by U.S. Senate hopeful Harvey Gantt, a black politician who was running against Jesse Helms in North Carolina, Jordan’s home state. Gantt had hoped that Jordan’s name would help him defeat Helms, widely regarded as a virulent racist. But Jordan declined. He wasn’t into politics, he explained, didn’t really know the issues. And, as he later told a friend, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
The quote soon migrated to newsprint. In 1996, the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Paul Woody spoke with political pundit Robert Holsworth, who speculated about whether Jordan would get involved in the 1996 Gantt–Helms Senate rematch.
“Michael Jordan is getting pressure from people in North Carolina to endorse Harvey Gantt (a Democrat) in his race for the Senate seat against Jesse Helms,” Holsworth said. “When he was asked to do the same thing in 1990, he said he didn’t know much about politics, but he knew Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Writers have since repeatedly attributed the phrase to Jordan using both the “sneakers” and “shoes” formulations. “Jordan did not take a stand, pointing out that Republicans buy sneakers too,” David Halberstam wrote in his 1999 book Playing for Keeps. The New York Times, Boston Globe, USA Today, Slate, and pretty much every other media entity has also put those words in Jordan’s mouth.
But as Brendan Nyhan and Jason Zengerle first noted in 2005, the provenance of the quote is mushy at best. It’s not clear from the passage in Second Coming if Sam Smith heard Jordan talk about Republicans and shoes or if someone passed the line along to him—he wrote that Jordan said it to “a friend.” Smith told a more specific story in his 2014 book There Is No Next. That time, he implied he heard the words come out of Jordan’s mouth. He characterized it as a joke, not a statement of Jordan’s personal political philosophy.
He also used the “sneakers” version of the quote rather than “Republicans buy shoes, too,” which is how he’d written it in 1995:
I’d probably gotten Jordan in some trouble as well when I’d used his joke when I was asking him why he wasn’t working for or endorsing Mayor Harvey Gantt in the Senate race against Jesse Helms, who had a history of racist behavior. Jordan with a sharp retort, which was his way of engaging in conversation, said “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Smith, who now covers the Bulls for the team’s website, declined to explain the discrepancies between his two accounts. “Whatever I’ve said in those two books, that’s all I have to say about it,” he told me. Smith said he “felt badly” about how the quote had dogged Jordan throughout his life and career. He said Jordan has been judged unfairly and criticized the media for taking the original quote out of context. When asked to explain that original context and if he’d actually heard Jordan talk about Republicans and shoes, Smith said, “It was 30 years ago. I’m not getting into a discussion about that.”
Jordan himself denies ever saying “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” his spokeswoman Estee Portnoy told Slate via email. While it’s unfair to claim with certainty that Jordan said something he maybe never said, the basketball legend’s reputation for avoiding controversial topics was not born from a single quote. As Jim Naughton explained in an excellent piece for the Washington Post Magazine in 1992, the Gantt–Helms race was “a clear-cut opportunity for a black athlete to make a political difference.” Arthur Ashe, for one, tried to convince Jordan to endorse Gantt. (According to Naughton, Jordan’s mother Deloris did respond to the plea by donating to Gantt’s campaign, saying, “Anybody over Jesse Helms.”)
In an excerpt of his autobiography published in the Washington Post, Ashe wrote:
While I would defend Jordan’s right to stay out of politics in general, I think that he made a mistake in declining to give any open support to Harvey Gantt, the respected black politician who ran for the U.S. Senate in 1990 from Jordan’s home state of North Carolina. For me, the main point is not that Gantt and Jordan are both black; rather, it is that Gantt’s opponent, Jesse Helms, has a long history of supporting segregation, and the contest was close. For blacks across America, that Senate contest was the most important in decades. Instead, Jordan stuck to his apolitical position. “I really don’t know Gantt,” he said, in response to criticism of his silence. “Well, Michael,” I would have told him, “pick up the telephone and call him!” A few appearances with Gantt might well have made the difference. Instead, Helms returned to the Senate.
Ashe wasn’t the only black athlete to criticize Jordan. In 1991, Jim Brown said that Jordan’s “main concern is the demands of corporate America” and argued that he “is not being a role model [for blacks] in the proper way.” In an interview in November with NPR, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar echoed Brown’s statement by saying, “[Jordan] took commerce over conscience. It’s unfortunate for him, but he’s gotta live with it.”
In 2014, ESPN’s Scoop Jackson pushed back against the idea that Jordan has been nothing more than a corporate shill. Jordan’s “contribution to the race has been by providing power but not by voice,” Jackson wrote, namely hiring black executives to help run the Charlotte Hornets and his Nike venture Jordan Brand. And Jordan has used his voice before: Also in 2014, he condemned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling when he said, “There is no room in the NBA—or anywhere else—for the kind of racism and hatred that Mr. Sterling allegedly expressed. I am appalled that this type of ignorance still exists within our country and at the highest levels of our sport.”
More often, particularly at the height of his on-court stardom, Jordan chose to stay silent in discussions about race. According to a 1992 piece in the Chicago Tribune, he deflected questions about the riots that followed the police beating of Rodney King:
Naturally when things like [the riot] happen and I`m asked to comment on it, people tend to expect me to do more, be more opinionated, more vocal. The cry now from Jim Brown is to be more vocal. But they make it sound like Magic Johnson and myself are the only wealthy black people in America. Where are the Eddie Murphys? Where are the Arsenio Halls? Where are the Bill Cosbys, these type of people?
In Sam Smith’s Second Coming, he quoted a Chicago Sun-Times interview in which Jordan said, “I’ve done a lot of things for the black community. If I’m guilty of anything it’s of not seeking publicity or keeping a record of everybody I’ve ever helped.” Smith also quotes Jordan as saying, “We still have racism. But sometimes the more publicity you give it helps increase racism rather than decrease it.”
Jordan has been similarly reluctant to take a potentially polarizing stance on other social issues. When the NBA was considering pulling the 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte on account of North Carolina’s anti-transgender bathroom law, Jordan released a feeble statement on behalf of the Hornets that didn’t mention the controversial law, HB2, by name. “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,” he said. (The NBA did ultimately pull the All-Star Game from North Carolina.)
It’s inaccurate, though, to characterize Jordan as a soulless capitalist entirely unconcerned with politics. According to OpenSecrets.org, Jordan donated $2000 to Gantt’s 1996 Senate campaign. (Estee Portnoy, Jordan’s spokeswoman, confirmed the donation to Slate. Despite the donation, Gantt lost that race, too.) In 2004, he contributed to Barack Obama’s senatorial campaign, leading Obama to joke that he “wasn’t sure whether he should cash [the check] or frame it.” In 2012, he took part in a fundraiser for President Obama and “co-headlin[ed] a $20,000 a plate dinner following it,” ESPN reported. OpenSecrets.org also lists donations from a Michael J. Jordan with the occupation “Charlotte Bobcats Owner” to various groups associated with the Democratic Party.
But Monday’s statement is different. This isn’t just a campaign donation: Jordan has decided to use his voice and his platform to weigh in publicly on a pressing issue of race and social justice. He’s still measured, and he’s still trying to give equal consideration to all sides. But this is a long way from “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” whether he ever said those words or not.