A follow-up to an issue I covered in this publication a few weeks back: On Wednesday the Smithsonian Institution announced that it had received a $5 million gift from basketball legend Michael Jordan to support the fledgling National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
I had drawn attention to the controversy surrounding Jordan’s previous donations to both a police organization and the NAACP. Some among the journo-academic commentariat had criticized Jordan for supporting the police in any way after the various shootings against unarmed black men across America.
I also mentioned how Jordan has traditionally been a very private personality, avoiding the public roles many of his fellow sports icons head embraced. Most (in)famously for Jordan’s critics within the black community, the former Bulls star allegedly refrained from supporting Harvey Gantt in his 1990 race against Dixie senator Jesse Helms, telling friends “Republicans buy sneakers too” (Jordan has denied ever making this comment). Since then, Jordan’s been dogged by a reputation as a penny-pinching mogul.
Now with the sizeable gift to the African-American Museum Jordan seems to be trying to set the record straight once and for all. He is a philanthropist of and for the black community. In a statement announcing the donation Jordan acknowledged his debt “to the historic contributions of community leaders and athletes such as Jesse Owens, whose talent, commitment, and perseverance broke racial barriers and laid the groundwork for the successful careers of so many African Americans in athletics and beyond.”
Compared to Jordan’s philanthropic anonymity over the past few decades, his three recent red-letter donations constitute a veritable flurry of activity. Why the sudden shift?
One doesn’t donate $5 million on a whim, and surely Jordan had been planning this gift for a while. But at the same time we can’t help but think that after seeing the sour reception that greeted his gift to the police association Jordan was put into a frame of mind to try to win back some fans. Either way, one hopes that Jordan didn’t feel cowed into this decision for PR purposes. For if the philanthropic community is going to take donor intent seriously, it really ought to be the donor’s intent, and not that of his critics in the press.