I say that MJ's story is a black power story, not the black power of protest and politics, but the black power of economics." -- Roland Lazenby, author of "Michael Jordan: The Life."
Here's a disturbing fact: Only 15 black executives have ever made it to the chairman or CEO position of a Fortune 500-listed company. Of these 15 executives, there are currently six active. There are currently no black majority-owned companies in the Fortune 500 rankings. Here's something else disturbing: In 2012-13 of the six CEO/president positions held by blacks within NBA teams, three were from the Charlotte franchise, and one man was both CEO and president for the Dallas Mavericks. That left 27 of the 30 teams without someone of color in at least one of their top executive positions, according to the 2013 racial and gender report card released by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Although in 2014, the league added an African-American deputy commissioner and COO in Mark Tatum.
Currently, Michael Jordan serves the role of CEO on the Hornets while also being its owner. It makes him not only the first ever former player to become a primary owner of an NBA franchise but also the NBA's only black principal/majority owner. One with one of, if not the most, diversified staffs in all professional sports. One very similar to the makeup to the staff he helps cultivate at his other business venture with Nike, the Jordan Brand.
As rapper Paris infamously said: "Black Power mean(s) more than a t-shirt."
Yet with the recent increase in superstar/celebrity social and political awareness surrounding everything #BLACKLIVESMATTER and beyond -- LeBron James' Instragram and Twitter posts lending his voice to issues ranging from the deaths of Trayvon Martin to the non-indictment of officer Darren Wilson; Derrick Rose first stepping on the court wearing an "I CAN'T BREATHE" shirt during pregame warm-ups; NFL players entering the field in unison with their hands up -- the doors (once again) have opened up for Michael Jordan's name to be the subject of apathy in the face of modern civil rights.
The "anti-Jordans" is what ESPN's Howard Bryant called them. These are athletes who express non-centrist attitudes by taking public stands and using current events as platforms to extend their power beyond what they do on the courts, fields, rings, pitches and in stadiums and arenas. Others have used Jordan's 1990 "Republicans buy sneakers too" comment as an indictment on everything Jordan hasn't done when it comes to standing up, lending his voice and brand name to a civil rights cause.
In the comprehensive context of Jordan "not being black enough," people miss how over the years with his position in the Jordan Brand as CEO, the company is the only one inside of Nike that has had multiple African-American presidents. (Disclosure: I worked with Nike from 2001-05, but not with the Jordan brand.) Outside of Nike president Trevor Edwards, the execs at the Jordan Brand have always been the highest-ranking blacks in the parent company (Nike). This is something that Jordan's made sure of; something that is not happenstance or a mistake.
"Michael's willingness to hire, support and promote minority leaders throughout his business ventures has been remarkable," Larry Miller, president of the Jordan Brand said in defense of the perception that the depths of Jordan's contribution to "the struggle" goes no further than that of a glorified pitchman. "He has always been focused on creating successful and sustainable businesses and has empowered minority leaders, including myself, with the opportunity to grow and advance those businesses."
Jordan just happens to do this "black thing" in a way that has been different. Quiet. Subtle. And no one gets it. His contribution to the race has been by providing power but not by voice. Most blacks aren't used to that. We want our leaders and heroes to make noise. Instead, Jordan has had more black people employed and upwardly moving through a $2.5 billion shoe brand for years. And now he's carrying that same process over to franchise ownership.
"After Jim Crow laws went into effect [in North Carolina], African-Americans there had no political rights," Roland Lazenby said recently. "They had to focus on economic rights. That's the only way they got ahead. Nobody, black or white, made any money in sharecropping. It was a disastrous economic system. But [Michael Jordan's] mother's father was a badass as a sharecropper. He kicked ass, came to own his own land, determined his own fate. His mother, although she didn't get along well with her father, was just like him, locked in on economic success."
Contextualize that with Jordan being the owner of the Charlotte Hornets where he has African-Americans in positions that no other team in the NBA has people in as well as an executive staff with more people of color on it than any other team in sports and you have, again, something more than a T-shirt.
Now not acknowledging the failures of Jordan as both a business person and a political icon would be disingenuous to the large numbers of people who over the years -- and still today -- have criticized Jordan for not doing enough and not lending his fame and power to causes where he could create change.
His mishandling of operations and poor decision-making while with the Washington Wizards as director of basketball operations and as a player; his struggles at building a winning team and respectable franchise in Charlotte before he took over ownership from Bob Johnson; Jordan taking verbal and physical stands against teammates, opponents and management but never publicly saying anything about, say, the racial uprisings in L.A. surrounding the Rodney King verdict or speaking out on any racial disparity and injustice, for some are hard to overlook or ignore.
Much of his inaction is looked upon as Jordan only speaking out or getting involved when his personal income is directly related or possibly affected.
All of which is understandable. But is it fair without looking at the end results? Just asking: Would Jordan being a more "vocal" role model have a greater impact than him being an "economic" one? Because in a society built around economics, oft times the best way to counter and take a stand against a Donald Sterling is not by boycotting Clipper games or players placing inside-out warm-ups a center court. It's by having a black man in the same position of ownership that Sterling was and doing the things and creating opportunities for blacks that Sterling wouldn't.
Dr. Richard Lapchick, director at The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, agrees: "It is hard to believe that in 2014 there is only one African-American majority owner in all the major men's pro leagues. The importance of Michael Jordan as a player is matched by his being the only owner. It is critical for minority youth to see that there are options to battling the long odds to become a pro athlete and that there are many opportunities to work in the world of sport as team presidents, general managers, COOs and, yes, even as owners. In the era of the Donald Sterling nightmare, the NBA and our society need Michael Jordan now more than ever and need other people of color to become owners in the near future."
When the headlines read: "LBJ has already surpassed MJ in willingness to address issues off the court," and this new era of athletes' social pushback is judged as not being a part of the "Michael Jordan School of Public Ambivalence" the certainty that Jordan's mind was always more focused on empowerment for blacks/African-Americans through business than through social and political activities, should not be looked at as a failure. For blacks in America today, there has to be more than one way to take a stand and make a point. And while everyone wants black celebrities to stand up and scream and rally behind certain causes, there needs to be some who make the same point in a different way.
We need to be more than just loud and visibly present.
"From where I stand," C. Keith Harrison, associate professor in the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida, said via phone interview, "as someone who has studied this for a couple of decades, I feel we have to continue to maximize the access we get through our physicality and mentality as athletes and move over to the business side. In other words, those of us that work on the business side of sports have never had the accolades in business that we've had as athletes on the court in college and in the pros. So Jordan's legacy is huge as he transitions into business in general.
"We can debate does Michael need to join in and speak out more or is it more important for him to navigate the corporate structure and create opportunities for other minorities through the power and influence he does have?"
Gotta love harsh truth. It always leads to an uncomfortable reality.
One of the biggest voids we have in America as black people is a lack of ownership. Period. Jordan and Magic Johnson have done their parts to fill that void in the arena of sports. And anyone who doesn't understand that contribution is just as important as taking a stand or speaking out on issues that concern our race lacks understanding of the true meaning of justice.
"The only power that African-Americans in North Carolina could trust was economic power," Lazenby said. "That's why the Black Wall Street came to being in Durham. And I don't think it's a small thing that President Obama chose Charlotte for the Democratic convention for his second nomination. MJ, driven by his mother's family's economic sense, is again a true black power story, although it might upset some people to hear that."
Jordan's actions, which to many seem rooted in a self-serving nature, show that it is not self-serving when the workforce created is consciously diversified by race and gender. When there is no quota to be met or tokens to be hired and only supremely qualified people of color are given opportunities in places and positions that have historically been unavailable, unattainable and where we have been unjustly shunned. When there is no one white to answer to.
Erasing that is called power. And no one is necessarily saying that Jordan is change but in "Jordan, Inc." he has shown how the other side of civil rights gets served.