Earlier this week, Michael Jordan donated $2 million to two organizations that address police brutality and racial injustice, breaking a long, conspicuous silence on anything political. Critics of that silence often dredge up this quote attributed to the legend: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” It’s an absurdly pithy summary of what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called Jordan’s “commerce over conscience” ethos, but its origins are murky, as Slate just explored.
Over the years the quote has taken slightly different forms—he says “shoes” in some versions, “sneakers” in others—and appeared in publications from The New York Times to Deadspin, but it first surfaced in Sam Smith’s 1995 book Second Coming. There it’s attributed to an unnamed friend of Jordan, who recalled the quote from a conversation about Jordan’s reluctance to speak out during the tightly-contested 1990 Senate race in North Carolina, eventually won by racist demagogue Jesse Helms. (The implication is that Jordan could have altered the course of politics in his home state if he’d been willing to open his mouth, but that he didn’t consider it worth risking his sales.) In his 2014 book There Is No Next, though, Smith frames the quote as if he’d heard it directly from Jordan, and as if it were a joke as opposed to to an earnest statement of the player’s philosophy.
In an interview with Slate, Smith doesn’t even attempt to reconcile these two versions. (“It was 30 years ago. I’m not getting into that.”) But he does say he “felt badly” about how the quote had plagued Jordan for so long, and criticized the media for shearing off its original context. Through a spokeswoman’s statement to Slate, Jordan denies ever saying those words. While all critiques of Jordan’s political reticence remain valid, maybe we should hesitate before regurgitating the fuzzily sourced, weirdly convenient, depressingly cynical slogan of that reticence. The decades of silence speak for themselves.