When someone like Jesse Helms passes on, I aspire to restraint. De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est. Since I have nothing but ill to say about the man, I’ll keep quiet about him.
What Helms’ death does provide, though, is the opportunity to talk about Michael Jordan’s vexing and from-afar associations with the deceased Republican senator. In 1992 and 1996, Harvey Gantt, the black mayor of Charlotte, ran against Helms for his North Carolina senate seat. Jordan, of course, is a North Carolina native, and during the 1990s he was at the peak of his cultural import. These days, there’s no one to compare him to. Perhaps the cumulative face time of LeBron James and Peyton Manning comes close, but there’s really never been a mass-media phenomenon like Jordan, at least in the sports world.
So a Jordan endorsement could’ve done Gantt a world of electoral good, particularly in North Carolina. But none came. Jordan famously declined to take a side, pleading that, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
In the main, there’s nothing wrong with an athlete’s choosing to remain above the political fray. As Jordan intimated, it’s often more profitable to concoct as much of a politically neutral image as you can. But Jordan’s complacency in the 1990s did more than spare a segment of his customer base from affront; it helped keep an unreconstructed racist in national office. That’s to his enduring shame.