Michael Jordan was ahead of his time. You knew that, of course, if you were around to watch him soar, dunk, defend and demonstrate how to play basketball better than anyone.
But, in this case, I'm talking about his opinions. He kept them to himself.
What athlete, coach or owner does that today? Who has the willpower to stay out of a discussion that's not really a discussion but an almost-impossible-to-pass test of whether your opinion fits the perceived right one?
Jordan didn't speak out for causes, right or wrong. He didn't let anyone know where he stood politically, although some tried to guess. If he wasn't selling shoes or discussing the game, he wasn't talking.
Could Jordan get away with that if he was a player today? Good question. The pressure is enormous to speak your mind, tweet and engage in ESPN banter on the network's various shows. Everyone wants the opinion of the athlete, coach and owner, if for no other reason than to be ready to tear them apart if they happen to have a viewpoint outside the perceived “acceptable” one.
Jordan drew some criticism during his day for not speaking out, whether on social issues or other topics. It was a smart strategy, allowing him to cultivate fans of all backgrounds and political leanings. It's probably even wiser today.
In today's culture, anyone who speaks out on any issue sees his or her words dissected immediately, often taken out of context and examined for secret meaning.
Look no further than Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who tried to engage in a discussion about the error of prejudice, but was immediately pounced upon by those who didn't like the theoretical examples of his own prejudice. Cuban is a loudmouth on occasion, but it seemed in this interview that he was genuine in trying to address a tough topic by admitting to some of his own faults.
My take on Cuban's message was that he wasn't proud of his own prejudices, but was owning up to having some and was trying to point out how he/we need to rise above that faulty thinking and try to be better people. I'm on board with that. Some people appreciated his candor and intent, even if they questioned his wording.
But others lumped him in with Clippers owner Donald Sterling. If people can't see the difference between Cuban and Sterling, based on their track record of dealing with people, there's no hope for any honest discussion, ever.
Athletes, coaches, owners – and even fans – can't express their thoughts without fear of backlash unless they carefully parse their words to the point where they're saying nothing. There seems to be no avenue for thoughtful exchanging of ideas, only name-calling and labeling. No one wants to listen long enough to hear what other people are saying.
A big part of the problem is social media, where people can hide behind an online persona and spew hatred, thwarting any chance for meaningful dialogue. Some of it is the fault of our societal need to see everything in absolutes. I'm right and you're wrong. There's no in-between. There are no gray areas. We want everyone's opinion and viewpoint, as long as it's the same as ours.
There are subjects (race, religion, politics and sexual orientation) that can't be discussed rationally in the sports world. Actually, they can't be discussed rationally anywhere because even if we have good intentions, we'll be vilified if we express our thoughts with hesitation, uncertainty or in an awkward manner.
Jordan took some heat when he didn't speak out on the topics of the day as a player. I can't blame any athlete, coach or owner for following the Jordan rules today. Honest discussion, with an exchange of ideas, has no chance in our shout-'em-down, ultra-sensitive culture.