Every athlete wants to be clutch. Big-time players make big-time plays on the biggest stages. Michael Jordan was always clutch on the court, but one off-the-court performance tells a different story.
In ESPN’s hit docuseries “The Last Dance,” the fifth episode highlights Jordan’s refusal to publicly endorse Black Senate candidate Harvey Gantt in 1990. Gantt, who would have been the first Black senator from North Carolina, was running against Jesse Helms, the incumbent Republican senator at the time. Helms was known for his blatantly racist agenda, so Jordan’s unwillingness to publicly endorse Gantt was disappointing for the Black community. Although Jordan claims his infamous quote, “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” was said in jest, many hardly found it amusing. What Jordan failed to understand was that his endorsement of Gantt would have been more than a political statement — it would have been an endorsement of social justice.
In the same episode, former president Barack Obama says, “Any African American in this society that sees significant success has an added burden, and lot of times, America is very quick to embrace a Michael Jordan, or an Oprah Winfrey, or a Barack Obama, so long as it’s understood that you don’t get too controversial around broader issues of social justice.”
While Obama’s statement may have been true for a long time, this generation of athletes is determined to flip the script. It’s crunch time for social justice, and today’s sports icons are making clutch plays for the Black community.
Following the tragic passing of Eric Garner, who was choked to death by police in 2014, dozens of NBA players, including Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving and Kobe Bryant, wore black shirts printed with the words “I Can’t Breathe” during warmups. This was a powerful statement in support of not just Garner, whose last words appeared on the shirts, but all lives lost at the hands of police brutality. For one of the first times, NBA players chose to use their platforms across teams in solidarity to bring awareness to the reality that police violence is alive and well in our nation.
On the gridiron, Colin Kaepernick led a peaceful protest against police brutality and systemic oppression by kneeling during the anthem in the 2016 NFL season. Although his movement ultimately led to him being blacklisted from the NFL, his actions inspired more professional athletes to use their platforms to speak up and fight for social justice.
In 2018, Fox News host Laura Ingraham told LeBron James and Kevin Durant to “shut up and dribble” on her segment in response to their public criticism of President Donald Trump. LeBron’s response to her comments embodies the evolution of an athlete’s role in today’s society.
“We will definitely not shut up and dribble. I will definitely not do that,” he told reporters during All-Star Weekend that year. “I mean too much to society, I mean too much to the youth, I mean too much to so many kids that feel like they don’t have a way out and they need someone to help lead them out of the situation they’re in.”
These events, along with many others, have led to the responses we are witnessing from athletes today. The United States is currently protesting largely in unison against police brutality and systemic racism. All 50 states have held protests demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, all three unarmed and killed by armed white men. Many athletes have stepped up in these crucial times and joined the nation in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
In 2018, the NBA was the most diverse professional men’s league in the United States, so seeing players from all walks of life help their communities in different ways during these protests follows naturally. Jaylen Brown, a former Cal basketball player who hails from Marietta, Georgia, used Twitter to organize and lead a protest in his home state. In a poetic, full-circle way, Jordan and his brand recently pledged to donate $100 million over the next 10 years to organizations promoting racial equality and social justice. San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich released a powerful video speaking out against racism. These are not isolated cases — players in multiple leagues across multiple sports are using their names and platforms to advocate for change in their communities.
The NFL has made positive strides in its stance against social injustice and police brutality. In 2018, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell enacted a policy that would fine teams with players who knelt during the national anthem. Recently, however, Goodell issued a public apology for not listening to players and expressed his and the league’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Goodell also stated that the NFL will support any peaceful protest NFL players make, a huge step forward for the league and its community.
NFL and NBA players aren’t the only ones making noise. Young tennis phenom Coco Gauff spoke at a protest in Delray Beach, Florida, and encouraged all protesters to take action and vote to ensure change. UFC middleweight champion Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya spoke to a crowd of protesters in Auckland, New Zealand, a reminder to all that this isn’t a uniquely U.S. issue — it’s a global issue. Liverpool was one of several European football clubs to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement, by kneeling as a team around the center circle during a training session.
Professional athletes aren’t just athletes, they’re role models. As role models, their words and actions are magnified and can resonate with everyone who watches them. Athletes know this and are sending the message that Black lives matter and that they will not tolerate police brutality and systemic oppression any longer.
Nico Alba covers men’s golf. Contact him at