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With the US midterm elections taking place today, we dig into a reported Michael Jordan quote that is still being weaponized now.

There are few people in the world as well known as Michael Jordan. His mixture of freakish athleticism and winner’s mentality made him the gold standard in basketball. The byproduct of his success was the meteoric rise of Jordan Brand, which continues to dominate long after his retirement from the NBA.

Currently, the Paris Saint-Germain x Nike Air Jordan 5 and Nike Air Jordan 3 “Quai54 2018” are among the top 10 most valuable sneakers during the third quarter of 2018. But is this continued success the byproduct of a political statement he in fact never made?

Jordan played in an era before social media. Reporters had to get quotes from the source directly. As a result, Jordan was famously adverse to courting any kind of controversy, and any negative press usually focused on his extreme competitive side.

Over the years, Jordan has become more vocal on social issues, commenting on then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling in 2014, police violence against the African-Americans in 2016, and President Trump’s “uninvite” of the Golden State Warriors to the White House in 2017.

When Jordan has commented, the media is often quick to bring up how it’s all a far cry from how he acted while playing, specifically pointing to the 1990 Senate race in his home state of North Carolina between Democratic challenger Harvey Gantt and Senator Jesse Helms.

Despite Helms being described as “unabashedly racist,” Jordan didn’t endorse Gantt, and the challenger lost the race by six points.

According to Sam Smith’s 1995 book Second Coming: The Strange Odyssey of Michael Jordan, Jordan’s reasoning was described as follows: “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 was damning on multiple levels. If it were true, Jordan was choosing universal likability — and strong earnings for his own personal brand — above all else. Essentially, the exact opposite of what Nike is trying to convey with its current “Just Do It” campaign led by Colin Kaepernick (which we’ve come to learn has generated $43 million worth of media exposure for the brand).

The New York Times used the quote in its own 1999 examination of Jordan’s unwillingness to, “[attach] himself to a cause that might enhance his legacy in post-playing years.” Smith’s 2014 book There Is No Next: NBA Legends on the Legacy of Michael Jordan also featured a reworked version of the quote with a small change (“shoes” had been changed to “sneakers”).

Years later, spokesperson Estee Portnoy told Slate that Jordan denies ever saying either version of the quote.

What’s particularly interesting is that Smith is also the author of 1992’s The Jordan Rules: The Inside Story of a Turbulent Season, which many pundits believe to be one of the juiciest sports books ever written. Although the book often painted Jordan in a negative light, he refuted very little of what Smith had written about him — not the strained relationship with Phil Jackson, not the bullying of teammates, and not putting golf above his day job.

When Slate reached out to Smith to discuss the context of the “Republicans” quote, the writer stated, “Whatever I’ve said in those two books, that’s all I have to say about it,” adding, “It was 30 years ago. I’m not getting into a discussion about that.”

Now more than ever, sports and politics are becoming intertwined. About Showtime’s new documentary exploring the intersection of sports and civic duty, Shut up and Dribble, Salon writes in its review of “the ways [Michael Jordan] ushered in the era of corporatizing personal brands” by referencing his supposed “Republicans buy sneakers, too” comment. Fox Sports Radio host Clay Travis, meanwhile, has used the quote as the title of his new controversial book, subtitled How the Left Is Ruining Sports With Politics.

Whether or not Jordan actually said those fateful words will remain a mystery. But what’s abundantly clear is that it’s still being weaponized on both sides of the aisle today.

As for Jordan’s actual political leanings during his career, he no-showed on the Bulls’ 1991 trip to visit President George H.W. Bush in the White House, quoted in The Jordan Rules as saying, “I ain’t goin’ to no White House. I didn’t vote for that guy.”

Now that’s a quote.

Words by Alec Banks
Features Editor

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based long-form writer with over a decade of experience covering fashion, music, sports, and culture.

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