Michael Jordan: Did He Transcend Race, Or Just Ignore It?

Forget LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. Michael Jordan is without a doubt the greatest basketball player the sport has ever seen. In fact, he stands today as one of the most enduring and prominent sports figures of all time, a man whose competitive drive and unparalleled excellence has shaped him into a global brand of success. Ever since his emergence as a star for the Chicago Bulls, kids have been striving to become “like Mike,” clamoring to Nike stores to buy his shoes or other gear if necessary. He was a superstar in its entirety, not simply an emblem for the black community but for the nation as a whole. But the question stands: did he overcome the barriers of race to promote a colorblind society, or did he simply ignore his race and abandon the black community he represented?

Michael Jordan was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1984, a time removed from the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement that nevertheless still bore its scars. His agent began pursuing a shoe deal with an athletic company, and eventually the partnership between Jordan and Nike began. It was at this time that Michael Jordan’s “image” was born. After all, when it comes to retail and marketing, the only thing that matters is the image. Who’s promoting these shoes? Who will I emulate if I buy them? Just how cool/new/like me is this guy? I would argue that it was this point in Jordan’s career, the instance in which he and his influence moved beyond the basketball court and into media and society, that he began to blur the lines of race.

Michael Jordan 2

Meanwhile, on the court, Jordan’s stock was soaring. He was dunking on power forwards, hitting game-winning shots, and proving himself superior to any and all competition. As he became more and more popular on the basketball court, his image in the media did as well, and soon “Michael Jordan”, with his expensive shoes and multiple endorsements, became a bonafide brand. And, like any brand, his image and public depiction had to be maintained in order to sustain and promote his sales. This is when the issue of race begins to come in play.

Michael Jordan was able to become a superstar for everybody, not just blacks. He showed what hard work and natural talent could accomplish for the entire population, instead of merely the African American community. White kids wanted to be “like Mike” just as much as everyone else. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that he was black, just that he was a great basketball player. In a way, Michael Jordan was able to transcend race and make it irrelevant to his public depiction, becoming arguably the first and most prominent African American major athlete ever to do so. Could he even have been one of the final steps toward an equal and colorblind society?

Michael Jordan

The other side of the equation is that even if a lot of the public didn’t put an emphasis on his race, Michael Jordan was still black and still a member of the African American community. Unlike Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, and many other black athletes who came before him, Jordan did not become a vocal advocate or racial symbol; instead, he merely remained a basketball player. This is not meant as a criticism; after all, no one ever asked him to represent the grievances of an entire race, nor was he necessarily expected to. That being said, Jordan took a step in a different direction from his predecessors and forged a new black athlete- one who no longer needed to become a racial symbol to be idolized or recognized.

Michael Jordan Promotion Tour Jordan Classic Camp

This silent attitude and focus on public perception was perhaps never more prominent than in 1990, when Michael Jordan was asked by his former UNC college coach Dean Smith to endorse Senate candidate Harvey Gantt, a black civil rights activist running against the segregationist and racist Jesse Helms in North Carolina. Jordan, one of the most high profile figures in the country, refused, saying “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

As previously mentioned, Jordan was never compelled or expected to give a political endorsement. Most professional athletes don’t. This decision does, however, mark a separation that he subtly defined between activism in the black community and economic interests. By refusing to endorse Hantt and support civil rights in order to preserve his image, Jordan showed that he wanted to be a business man, not an advocate. Beyond this, he did little to engage himself in the African American community throughout his career, effectively distancing himself. So now one must ask: did he ignore his race and heritage?

Michael Jordan 4

In a way, Michael Jordan was a whole new kind of black athlete. Instead of exceeding despite his race, like Jackie Robinson, or demonstrating it proudly, like Muhammad Ali, he made it a non-issue. When people saw Michael Jordan, they didn’t think “black man in sports”; what they saw was simply an incredible basketball player. Ultimately, Jordan was able to transcend race, to move beyond its duties and labels. Whether this was a move toward equality and a colorblind society or an abandonment of his roots is a question that could be debated continuously. The answer could be both. There might not even be an answer. Regardless, Michael Jordan redefined the role of African American athletes, moving beyond the labels of a race to focus more on a brand and media depiction.


Works Cited:

Merlino, Doug. “How Michael Jordan Became the First Modern African-American Superstar Athlete.” Bleacher Report. Bleacher Report, 20 May 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.

Granderson, LZ. “The Political Michael Jordan.” ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures, 14 Aug. 2012. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.

Meet… Bill Russell

“We foolishly lionize athletes and make them heroes because they can hit a ball or catch one. The only athletes we should bother with attaching any particular importance to are those like [Muhammad] Ali, whom we can admire for themselves and not for their incidental athletic abilities.”

Bill Russell not only revolutionized the game of basketball with his height and shot blocking abilities, but he also drastically altered the role of the black athlete before going on to become the NBA’s first black head coach. When Russell first entered the league, there were only 15 other African Americans playing professional basketball. Racism and prejudice still existed in organizations, and often logistics such as lodging and food were made difficult due to segregated establishments. Throughout his career, Russell remained outspoken and opinionated, attacking these issues and becoming a vocal role model for black athletes in America. Ultimately, he would become one of the NBA’s greatest champions, as well as one of its greatest men.

Bill Russell

Like so many African Americans of his generation, Bill Russell was born into poor financial circumstances in the rural South, although his family eventually moved west to California in pursuit of better jobs and opportunities. As he grew older and taller, Russell began playing basketball, a game in which he showed initial promise despite his awkward height on the court. He would go on to play college basketball at the University of San Francisco, the only school that offered him a scholarship. Bill didn’t care though; he was just excited to go to college and have the opportunity to escape the racism and poverty of his childhood. While at USF, Russell emerged as a dominant force on the court, averaging over 20 points and 20 rebounds per game. He also introduced vertical defense and smothering shot blocking to the game of basketball, two aspects that define the game today. Eventually, he would go on to lead his school to two NCAA national championships, becoming a first team All-American and Final Four MVP along the way.

Bill Russell 3

Russell’s success in college basketball was not without its dark moments, however. Racism still existed throughout the country, and it manifested itself several times throughout his collegiate career. Notable instances include a game in Oklahoma City in which none of the city’s hotels would put up Russell and his fellow black teammates, as well as the time before a tournament game in which the fans yelled “Globetrotters” at the players and threw coins at them. Russell didn’t let this deter him, however, and he continued to work hard to become the best player he could. He eventually was drafted by the Boston Celtics, where he would go on to become a forceful player and champion.

Russell entered the NBA in 1956, a time in which black athletes were being thrust into the political spotlight amidst the chaos of the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement. Bill didn’t underestimate this significance, either. “It is the first time in four centuries that the American Negro can create his own history,” Russell wrote in the 1960s. “To be part of this is one of the most significant things that can happen.” He was never afraid to speak his mind, and did what no one else had previously dared to do when he called out the league on its lack of diversity. He also travelled to Africa several times throughout his career, seeking to reestablish his roots and form a connection to his heritage. Perhaps most notable, however, was the fact that Russell and his fellow black Celtics teammates boycotted an exhibition game in Kentucky after a local restaurant refused to seat them. This bold and unprecedented move was one of the first times that black athletes had called attention to the discrimination they faced and marked a change in the role of the black athlete.


Russell went on to lead his Celtics to 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons, establishing a dominant league dynasty. He also became the player-coach of the Celtics in 1966, thus marking the first time an African American had been named the head coach of an NBA team. This accomplishment occurred nearly 16 years after the league had first integrated its players, a remarkably long time given the nature of integration in society and other sports. Russell led his team to a final title in 1969 before retiring from the game, leaving behind a legacy of greatness in which he redefined the nature of basketball with his height and shot blocking strategies. His most important contribution, however, was the role he played in giving African Americans power and a voice in professional sports, as well as the strides he made in finally breaking the color barrier of NBA management and coaching.


Works Cited:

Merlino, Doug. “Bill Russell, Civil Rights Hero and Inventor of Airborne BasketballCeltics.” Bleacher Report. N.p., 29 Apr. 2011. Web. 06 Jan. 2013.

Timeline of the Civil Rights Movement Through Sports

To begin with, a comprehensive timeline of important dates and moments in sports and the civil rights movement-

* points that are bolded and italicized are those that occurred outside sports

1863- The Emancipation Proclamation is issued

1884- Moses Fleetwood Walker integrates professional baseball

1908- Jack Johnson becomes the 1st black heavyweight-boxing champion

1910- Jack Johnson defends his title and defeats Jim Jeffries, who had been deemed the “Great White Hope”

1919- Fritz Pollard begins pro football, goes on to form first all-black team

1923- Jack Trice, an African American Iowa State football player, is trampled to death on field against Minnesota

1936- Jesse Owens wins 4 gold medals at the Berlin Olympics

1938- Joe Louis defeats Max Schmeling

1947- Jackie Robinson integrates the MLB

1948- Armed forces integrated

1950- NBA integrated

1954- Brown vs. Board of Education dismisses “separate but equal”

1955- Montgomery bus boycott

1957- Althea Gibson wins Wimbledon

1957- the Little Rock Nine integrate Arkansas schools

1963- Martin Luther King Jr. gives his “I Have a Dream Speech”

1963- Mississippi State plays the integrated Loyola University in the NCAA tournament after having previously boycotting the tournament in protest of integration

1964- Civil Rights Act passed

1966- Muhammad Ali claims exemption from the Vietnam draft

1966- Bill Russell becomes first black NBA head coach

1966- Texas Western defeats all-white Kentucky in the NCAA basketball championship game with an all-black starting five

1967- Perry Wallace integrates SEC basketball

1968- Tommie Smith and John Carlos launch black power salute at the Mexico City Olympics

1970- USC defeats Alabama behind Sam Cunningham’s amazing game; the next year Alabama integrates its football team

1975- Frank Robinson becomes 1st black MLB manager

1975- Arthur Ashe wins Wimbledon

1989- Art Shell becomes the 1st black head coach in the NFL since Fritz Pollard

2008- Barack Obama becomes the first African American president of the United States

A Racial Aberration: Are The Timberwolves Too White?

I recently came across an article in the latest edition of Sports Illustrated that proved very thought provoking. Entitled “Too White, Or All Right?”, this article discussed the recent comments by Tyrone Terrell, the chairman of the African American Leadership Council, who suggested that the Minnesota Timberwolves NBA team organized their off-season roster on the basis of not just talent, but race as well, signing non-African American players in order to appeal to a fan base that is predominantly white. Indeed, in a league in which 80% of players are African American, the Timberwolves are a team with only 5 black players out of a total of 15 roster spots.

Understandably, Terrell’s comments have been extremely controversial, and they have been met with both praise and criticism. Some have called him a racist and asked for his resignation, while others commend him for speaking out on a topic few dare to discuss. Although his accusations of racism by the Timberwolves’ managers may seem accurate at first glance, a closer examination of the situation provides evidence that significantly weakens this argument. After all, if the Timberwolves wanted a primarily Caucasian team, why would they make lucrative offers to two black players this past off-season? Furthermore, some of the most successful and popular players in Minnesota’s history were African American, including Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell, and Tony Campbell. Still, the fact remains that the Timberwolves are a racial anomaly in the NBA, and this issue has prompted others, such as Ron Edwards, the former head of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission, to express concern as well.

Ultimately, this incident is so intriguing because the roles are reversed; this time, whites are considered a minority in a league dominated by African Americans. Indeed, if this is the case, should the Timberwolves be praised because they are technically diversifying their team in respect to the NBA? Or will history forever render the relationship between whites and blacks as the oppressors and the oppressed, respectively? Is there really even a race issue here to begin with, or is it merely society’s natural reaction to seeing a team that looks different than everyone else? These are the key questions surrounding this situation that make it an intriguing example of the racial stigmas that still exist in today’s society.

It must be noted that many of the Timberwolves non-black players are not “white”, technically, but are actually international players from foreign countries. This only further contradicts Terrell’s claim that the team’s roster was put together with a certain appearance in mind. When examining this and other factors, one is able to draw one’s own conclusions as to whether race played a factor in the assemblage of the Timberwolves’ players. Personally, I believe that these selections were made based on talent and availability, not race. However, it remains incredibly interesting to examine the reactions on behalf of others regarding this anomaly of the NBA, and the approach to race relations that exists in today’s society.

Meet… Dean Smith

“I do believe in praising that which deserves to be praised.”

Dean Smith was not black. He was not an athlete. He did not, contrary to popular belief, integrate the Atlantic Coast Conference. He did, however, use sports as an instrument for social change, launching protests and discussions with not only his words, but his actions as well. As the head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Smith was able to lead the school into a new era of progress and equality while simultaneously changing the face of basketball in both the ACC and the entire country.

Dean Smith’s dedication to civil rights and equality presented itself early on, when he was a high school basketball player in Topeka, Kansas. Upset by the division between his high school’s prominent all-white basketball team and the all-black team that was created due to segregation, Smith went to the principal and demanded the two teams be merged in order to allow the best possible talent to be allowed to play, regardless of race. After much deliberation, as well as increased pressure on behalf of Smith, the principal eventually relented, and the following season saw three African Americans on the Topeka High junior varsity team. Two years later, Bill Peterson made his debut as the first black basketball player at Topeka.

This commitment to change characterized Dean Smith’s later career as one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history. When he first took this coaching job, Chapel Hill still had segregated restaurants and facilities. The ACC was all white. Amongst this atmosphere of racial division, Smith soon realized that change was necessary. He understood that as the coach of the college’s basketball team, which in North Carolina is almost like its own religion, he had a certain power that came with that position. Thus, in the early 60’s, Dean Smith, Bob Seymour- a local minister and lifelong friend of Smith’s- and a black Chapel Hill student all arrived at The Pines, a local high end restaurant that was adamant about refusing African American patrons. As Seymour later said, “We asked to be served and with Dean Smith at the door, they could not say no. That was the opening of the door of The Pines restaurant.”

Perhaps his most well known contribution to civil rights was his recruitment of Charlie Scott, one of the first black students to play in the ACC and the first African American scholarship athlete at the University of North Carolina. In recruiting Scott, Dean Smith literally changed the face of UNC and helped integrate the entire ACC. Just as he had done at Topeka High, Smith challenged sports teams to include the best overall talent available, not simply the best white talent.

Dean Smith knew that with such a prominent position, he had the power to enact the change he desired to see in the world. He helped establish a settlement house in Chapel Hill for low income workers. He demanded that revenue from the basketball program be shared with all the school’s athletic programs, both men’s and women’s. He campaigned for higher wages for domestic workers. Most importantly, however, he brought equality to a city, a school, and a conference that desperately needed it.


Works Cited:

Lapchick, Richard. “Dean Smith and a Civil Rights legacy.” ESPN.com. ESPN, 17 May 2011. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/commentary/news/story?page=lapchick/110517>.

Kelley, Steve. “Dean Smith Challenged Chapel Hill’s Old Prejudices.” The Seattle Times. The Seattle Times Newspaper, 29 Mar. 1997. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19970329>.

Integration on the Court: College Basketball in the South

Today, we think nothing of seeing a star African American player or an all-black starting lineup in college basketball. In fact, this is somewhat common in the world of collegiate hoops. What many people fail to comprehend, however, is the amount of effort and time it took to integrate college basketball, especially in the American South, an area dominated by discrimination and prejudice. Often, storied programs refused to change their ways and integrate, and fans continued to protest interference in their segregated teams’ affairs. In the end, it took the audacity of innovative coaches, a changing social attitude, and simply time to alter the face of college basketball in the South.

The first step in integrating collegiate basketball was integrating the school itself. White southern colleges did not even begin to admit black students until the early 1960s, despite the fact that Brown vs. Board of Education had deemed segregated public schools unconstitutional in 1954. Once African Americans were allowed on campus, they were still excluded from athletic teams until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Northern liberals found this segregation ridiculous, and hoped that integrating collegiate sports teams would provide the South and the rest of the country with an example of prosperous cooperation between whites and blacks. Indeed, many colleges outside of the South had opened their athletic teams to African Americans by the mid-1950s, and the National Basketball Association had been integrated in 1950. The rest of the country was taking strides forward, but the South remained stubbornly in its discriminatory past.

This divide between the South and the rest of the country became prominent when it came time for segregated southern teams to play integrated teams from the North. In the first half of the 20th century, southern colleges had simply not scheduled games against teams with black players or had entered into “gentleman’s agreements” with schools with integrated teams. These agreements dictated that the southern college would play a northern school only if that school excluded its African American players from the game. This code of conduct governed play between northern and southern colleges until 1950, by which time most integrated schools refused to agree to a gentleman’s agreement and bar their black players from competition. This resulted in southern colleges either organizing careful scheduling so as not to play any team with an African American player or simply canceling a game against an integrated team, as the University of Tennessee did against Duquesne in 1945.

By the 1950s, most colleges outside of the South had removed barriers preventing African American involvement in athletic programs. In basketball, this resulted in the emergence of a number of African American stars, such as the great Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and Bill Russell. The success of the interracial squads of the north put pressure on colleges of the South to integrate their own teams. Any move to recruit black players, however, was halted by vehement opposition on behalf of southern society. Fans and officials alike protested federally mandated desegregation, and officials in Birmingham, Alabama even went so far as to pass laws prohibiting interracial sporting events. This practice was carried out by the state of Louisiana as well, which in 1956 adopted a bill making it illegal for blacks and whites to compete in any athletic event. The attitude of Southern society toward athletic integration was perhaps best summarized by Georgia senator Leon Butts, who in 1957 said interracial competition should be banned because, “when Negroes and whites meet on the athletic fields on a basis of complete equality, it is only natural that this sense of equality carries into the daily living of these people.”

This ideology eventually affected the Mississippi State basketball and denied them any chance of winning the NCAA Championship tournament. After winning the SEC in 1959, 1961, and 1962, and thus securing a bid into the post season tournament, the Bulldogs were forced to decline their invitation to the NCAAs because of their state and school’s policy against interracial competition. By the time Mississippi State won the SEC again in 1963, university officials were determined to give their basketball team a chance in the NCAA tournament, thus challenging the segregationists of the state. This move was not appreciated by some fans, who felt that though athletic achievement was important to the state and to the school, “our southern way of life is infinitely more precious.” As a result, they were granted a temporary injunction preventing the team from leaving the state to play against integrated teams in the north for the postseason. This was eventually dissolved, but Mississippi State officials were so worried about the actions of die-hard segregationists that the team had to secretly sneak out of the state to travel to their game.

Mississippi State went on to play against Loyola University, a team with four black starters who beat the Bulldogs on their way to the championship game. This has since been considered an important step towards achieving racial equality in the South, and it made interracial competition between southern and northern schools politically, if not socially, acceptable. This shifting attitude began to spread throughout the South as schools moved towards fully integrating their own teams. Supported by student protests and campus opinion, the University of Kentucky announced in 1963 that its athletic programs would be open to all students, regardless of race. Despite this, however, the school’s basketball team did not actually become integrated until 1970.

While the SEC remained all-white, southern Texas schools began integrating their own basketball teams. This was first achieved in 1956, when Texas Western College became the first historically white southern university to become integrated with the enrollment of Charles Brown and his nephew, Cecil Brown. This policy was continued in 1961 when the school hired coach Don Haskins, who asserted that he would recruit the best players he could, regardless of race. The University of Louisville would later go on to become the first school to integrate the Upper South in 1964 when three black players, Wade Houston, Stan Smith, and Eddie Whitehead, began playing for the Cardinals.

It would still be Texas Western, however, that would radically change the face of college basketball in the 1966 championship game against the Kentucky Wildcats. This game featured the all black starting lineup of Texas Western against the all white starters of the segregated Kentucky squad. Texas Western would go on to defeat the Wildcats, proving to the South that having the best available talent, regardless of race, was more important to winning than maintaing racial prejudices and a “southern way of life”. Indeed, this game had since been considered the “emancipation proclamation” of southern collegiate basketball.

Shortly after this victory, Perry Wallace was recruited by Vanderbilt University and went on to break the SEC’s color barrier in 1967. Change was slow, however, and the 1969-1970 basketball season saw only 2 African Americans among 120 SEC players. It wasn’t until 1972, when Mississippi State finally signed a black player, that the SEC became a fully integrated athletic conference. Eventually, by 1975, black athletes made up 45 percent of SEC players, and the conference was considered to have achieved relative racial equality.

The road to integration in southern college basketball was both incredibly long (spanning from 1945 until 1972) and incredibly difficult. So why did it change? Contributing factors include: changing student and faculty attitudes, African American presence on campuses, pressure from integrated northern colleges, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the will to win and recruit the best talent available. Eventually, the integrated teams of the South proved to the rest of southern society that blacks and whites could work together toward a common goal, and provided an example of successful interracial cooperation.


Works Cited:

Miller, Patrick B., and David Kenneth Wiggins. Sport and the Color Line: Black Athletes and Race Relations in Twentieth-century America. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.