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Michael Jordan couldn’t get away with his apolitical brand building in 2020

Episode 5 of “The Last Dance” delves into the making of the Jordan brand, and “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

Michael Jordan couldn’t get away with his apolitical brand building in 2020
[Photo: Paul Volkmer/Unsplash; Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash]
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On September 3, 2018, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Just Do It,” Colin Kaepernick tweeted out a Nike ad that will (and should) go down as one of the brand’s very best.

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It was also one of its most divisive, because it directly addressed some of America’s biggest fault lines: race, patriotism, sports, and business.

For Nike founder Phil Knight, that was the point. “It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it,” Knight told Fast Company. “And as long as you have that attitude, you can’t be afraid of offending people. You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something, which is ultimately I think why the Kaepernick ad worked.”

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For anyone who watched episode five of the excellent ESPN documentary The Last Dance, this strategy is a marked departure from the one employed by Michael Jordan, arguably the man most responsible for Nike’s global dominance, for his entire career.

In this latest installment of the 10-part docuseries, Jordan discussed his famed apolitical approach—as well as the infamous line—”Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

Jordan finally cops to the line, which was reported to be falsely attributed to him, but said it was a joke. “I don’t think that statement needs to be corrected, because I said it in jest on the bus with Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen,” said Jordan. “It was, y’know, thrown off the cuff.”

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What wasn’t off the cuff was his decision not to endorse 1990 North Carolina senate candidate Harvey Gantt, who was running against incumbent (and notorious racist) Senator Jesse Helms, to become the first African-American representative from Jordan’s home state.

As Jordan describes it, he simply chose to support Gantt from behind the scenes. “My mother asked to do a PSA for Harvey Gantt,” he said. “And I said, ‘Look mom, I’m not speaking out of pocket about someone I don’t know. But I will send a contribution to support him.’ Which is what I did.”

Gantt lost.

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President Obama, who appears in the doc, says at the time that Jordan’s lack of support for Gantt—and the line about Republicans—were disappointing. “For somebody who was at that time, preparing for a career in civil rights law and in public life, and knowing what Jesse Helms stood for, you would’ve wanted to see Michael push harder on that,” said Obama. “On the other hand, he was still trying to figure out ‘How am I managing this image that has been created around me? And how do I live up to it?'”

Social and political activism by athletes wasn’t a new concept in 1990. Muhammad Ali became a cultural icon not just for his boxing prowess but for the having the courage of his convictions. Jordan knows that, but just didn’t see himself in the same light. “I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in,” said Jordan. “But I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player. I wasn’t a politician. I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy. That was where my energy was.”

As much as it worked 30 years ago, how popular would it be now? That Kaepernick ad starred an NFL quarterback who hadn’t played a game in eons. Meanwhile, LeBron James, arguably this era’s MJ, has repeatedly spoken out against social injustices, from Black Lives Matter to clowning on President Trump. The tagline for his media company Uninterrupted is “More Than,” meaning “more than an athlete,” that also—surprise, surprise—has a Nike collaboration. James also produced a three-part Showtime series based on Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s dismissive “shut up and dribble” comment telling James and other athletes to stick to sports.

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Other star athletes, if not leading the charge, back those athletes who do with retweets and other signs of support.

There’s a parallel between both Nike and Jordan, who managed to spin enough PR magic in the ’90s to get most people to forget their actions (or lack thereof) in the real world, whether that’s around labor practices or social justice.

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Today, it’s a balancing act that’s tough, if not impossible, to pull off.

Witness Nike’s issues around sexual harassment and work culture, or the mess involving running coach Alberto Salazar, that have forced the company to take action.

You could make the argument that it was a different time, a different league, a different culture in Jordan’s heyday. In this same episode, we learn about the role that the 1992 Olympic Games played in making Jordan a cultural icon and not just a star athlete. For his entire career, Jordan managed to cash in on all the endorsements that made and maintained that status—Nike, Gatorade, McDonald’s—while not using it for any other positive purpose. It’s an opportunity few top athletes would waste today, because both the fans and the brands would demand it.

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What’s perhaps most interesting is that even though his biggest corporate partner is saying it’s got to take a stand, and his closest present-day parallel in James continues to balance social responsibility and the spokesman role, Jordan himself hasn’t changed at all with the times.

“It’s never going to be enough for everybody, I know that, I realize that,” said Jordan. “You know, because everybody has a preconceived idea of what they think I should do and what I shouldn’t do. The way I go about my life is I set examples. And if it inspires you, great, I will continue to do that. If it doesn’t, then maybe I’m not the person you should be following.”

In 2020, off the court, there just aren’t too many top sports stars with a strategy to “Be like Mike.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.

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