The weekend that woke the United States up—and reminded everyone including President Donald Trump that athletes can have a powerful political voice—also dragged a famously reticent megastar into the debate.
Michael Jordan, the current owner of the Charlotte Hornets and de-facto greatest basketball player of all time, told the Charlotte Observer Sunday night that those athletes taking a knee during the national anthem should not be “demonized or ostracized.”
“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,” Jordan said.
“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.”
Trump provoked one of the more extraordinary weekends in the history of U.S. professional sport when he told a rally in Alabama on Friday that NFL owners should respond to their players’ peaceful protest by saying, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he's fired. He's fired!"
In a separate gesture, Trump then rescinded via Twitter an invitation to the White House for Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry that Curry had already refused. Trump’s behavior appeared to solidify the NFL against him, with players linking arms on the sidelines and the Pittsburgh Steelers refusing to exit the locker room altogether for the anthem.
“Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team.Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!” Trump tweeted. Curry described the rejection as “surreal” in quotes reported by the Washington Post.
Jordan’s intervention is significant because, as perhaps the United States’ highest-profile black athlete, he has been known for his reluctance to comment on political issues. A Slate article published in July 2016 recalls Jordan’s controversial non-endorsement of Harvey Gantt, the black North Carolina Democrat, against Jesse Helms in the 1990 Senate race. Legend has it that Jordan justified his decision to stay out of the election by saying, “Republicans buy sneakers too,” although that has never been verified.
Trump’s comments, though, are dragging even the most politically bashful athletes out of their shells. Jordan’s intervention is another significant moment on an extraordinary long weekend.