LOS ANGELES: Basketball icon Michael Jordan, long reluctant to speak out on social issues, on Monday condemned violence fuelling rising racial tension in America and pledged $2 million toward efforts to build trust.
“I know this country is better than that, and I can no longer stay silent,” said Jordan in a letter released via theundefeated.com, a website backed by ESPN.
It was a watershed moment for a superstar who throughout his playing career, in which he led the Chicago Bulls to six National Basketball Association (NBA) championships between 1991 and 1998, was criticised for his hesitance to wade in on politics.
His unexpected move was widely welcomed.
A wave of police killings of African Americans and deadly attacks against police officers prompted Jordan’s public stand.
“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,” he said.
“I grieve with the families who have lost loved ones, as I know their pain all too well.”
His father, James Jordan, was shot and killed in 1993 at a highway rest area, not long after his son led the Bulls to a third NBA title.
Jordan announced grants of $1 million each to two organisations working to improve relations between law enforcement and the communities in which they work — the Institute for Community Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
The first was launched in May by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, while the Legal Defense Fund was originally established in 1940 to work for civil rights as part of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“Although I know these contributions alone are not enough to solve the problem, I hope the resources will help both organizations make a positive difference,” he said.
Now the only African-American majority owner of an NBA club, the Charlotte Hornets, Jordan has joined a wave of social commentary in US sports sparked by a spate of police shootings of unarmed black men — and the shooting deaths of police officers in Dallas, Texas, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Current NBA stars LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade opened the recent ESPYs sports awards show urging their peers to take the lead in combating racial injustice and gun violence.
Anthony, leading a town hall meeting, including citizens, police and politicians in Los Angeles on Monday, called Jordan’s statement and donation “brilliant”.
“He is our face,” said Anthony. “He is a very powerful African American, so for him to step up in the midst of these times right now was very big.”
In April, when a North Carolina law seen as discriminatory to the LGBT community was pushing the NBA toward moving the 2017 All-Star Game from the Hornets’ arena, Jordan issued a statement saying the club was “opposed to discrimination in any form”.
The league ultimately decided to move the game last week.
A spokesperson told theundefeated.com that Jordan had resolved to speak out two weeks ago, but delayed his comments to avoid overshadowing the concerns of the lesbian, gay and transgender community over the All-Star Game.
His comments are a far cry from his past reticence.
He once famously said “Republicans buy sneakers, too” in explaining his reluctance to comment on thorny political issues.
In 2015, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took Jordan to task, saying in an interview that he “took commerce over conscience”, although Jordan has in fact quietly backed political candidates, including donating to Obama’s senatorial and presidential campaigns.
“The problems we face didn’t happen overnight and they won’t be solved tomorrow,” said Jordan.
“But if we all work together, we can foster greater understanding, positive change and create a more peaceful world for ourselves, our children, our families and our communities.”