Can We Still Be Like Mike?

We have surrendered inclusive environments where we can interact with our fellow citizens without having our differences always starkly in focus in the name of ever-present activism.

As a product of the ’90s, I pretty much idolized Michael Jordan like most boys did (even if, as a Jazz fan, I still have strong feelings about whether or not he pushed off on Bryon Russell). MJ was a unifying figure in American culture, unlike what is likely possible in America’s present state. I’m sure there are many different reasons for this. He was a singular talent, he never backed down, and he was simply beautiful to watch.    

But there’s also something to be said about another aspect of Michael Jordan. Liking him, watching him, and wanting to be like him was a decidedly non-political act. In key moments of his life, Jordan had refused to become a political figure. While this decision was controversial among many activists, even to this day (and something he possibly regrets), it allowed and invited universal approbation. Conservatives, liberals, radicals, and moderates could all be fans of Mike without having that fandom attached to any political position.   

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying athletes, or any public figures for that matter, should just “shut up and play.” I detest the idea of “lanes,” the idea that anyone, for any reason, has less of a right to speak out on important issues. But I do think we’re missing something if we adopt the idea that political activism is the highest form of civic duty and should trump all other aspects of a healthy, civil society.   

For society to function, it requires that we can “put on different hats.” Not every activity or expression is appropriate or healthy in every circumstance. This idea encapsulates what is often called professionalism.    

As both a soldier and police officer, for example, I was encouraged by excellent mentors, and often required by regulations, to be a consummate professional with a clear understanding that many of my personal views and most of my political beliefs ended where my duty began. However important I might believe my viewpoint was, the necessity of maintaining politically neutral military forces and law enforcement agencies was far more important.   

This idea of professionalism extends to most vocations in one way or another. Part of a functioning society is understanding that when we go to work, church, or engage in any activity that involves connection to a group or entity bigger than ourselves, we are “putting on a hat.” In such contexts, we must filter our actions and words through an understanding that we are representing more than just ourselves.   

Again, this is important for a healthy, functioning society because it aids in creating inclusive environments where we can interact with our fellow citizens without having our differences always starkly in focus. We need times and places where we set aside what divides us. We need events, like sporting events, where we can engage in a non-political activity that brings us together and teaches us just how shallow a reason political disagreement is for disliking each other. Fandom can transcend partisanship in beautiful, miraculous ways.  

This is why what I see happening in the NBA, the Olympics, and other sports venues, saddens me and discourages me. For however much these athletes are passionate about their beliefs, the way they engage in activism often does more damage than good. Not only is it unlikely they’re changing any minds, but they’re also dragging the political anxieties and resentments that are tearing our society apart into one of the few places left that could be bringing us together.