If there is one thing that has consistently dogged Michael Jordan’s reputation, it is he never took a stand politically. The charge is that this man at the peak of his powers, the most recognisable athlete in US sports, did not speak up, let alone speak out. “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” is the quote that has followed him around for 30 years – with former US president Barack Obama expressing his disappointment in the ESPN-Netflix series The Last Dance . Muhammad Ali took a stand, the detractors say. The NBA ’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took a stand. So why not Jordan? “I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in, but I never thought of myself as an activist, I thought of myself as a basketball player,” Jordan said on The Last Dance . “I wasn’t a politician when I was playing my sport, I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably, but that was my energy, that’s where my energy was.” That energy took him to six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls and the career focus was something Obama reflected on in the show. NBA-China feud reignites after coronavirus timeout No matter that Jordan offered money for Harvey Gantt in both of his North Carolina Senate seat races or what he has done since, the quote hangs around. As Sam Smith – the journalist that he told the famous Republicans line to – wrote on the Bulls website explaining the quote, Jordan has been busy since hanging up his Air Jordans . In 2016, he spoke out against police brutality and donated US$2 million to bodies looking to resolve the issue. He then backed Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry in not wanting to go to the Trump White House after winning the NBA Finals, calling for unity. “I support Commissioner Adam Silver, the NBA, its players and all those who wish to exercise their right to free speech,” he said in a statement. Jordan has backed NFL players over their right to take a knee in the anthem and in 2018 backed LeBron James when President Donald Trump called him out on Twitter. He also hosted a 2012 fundraiser for Obama’s re-election. Let’s remember that the 1990s was a very different era. The NBA wanted silence on politics. Jordan’s teammate, Craig Hodges, maintains he was canned by the Bulls in 1992 for his political beliefs. Hodges was outspoken and turned up to the White House after the 1992 win in a dashiki with a letter for president George H.W. Bush. There was no social media, either, and the idea of a basketball player getting into a public spat with the president was unthinkable. That’s perhaps why it is unfair to make such comparisons between Jordan and James. When Jordan did not show at The White House in 1991 after winning the NBA title for the first time, the snub of Bush was not political – Jordan was gambling. Nowadays, athletes snub the White House all the time – or they are snubbed by the White House. Everything is politics and the battle lines are drawn. Nike, which still partners with Jordan for the eponymous brand that has made him the richest man in sports, has taken its own stand, publicly backing ostracised NFL player Colin Kaepernick and leading to Republicans burning their sneakers. Nike athlete James has been given plaudits for taking on Trump but not for his silence on the NBA-China feud. He was called out for his stance in the fallout following Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting Hong Kong’s anti-government protesters. LeBron James speaks for the first time since the NBA's trip to China, says Rockets GM Daryl Morey was "misinformed" about the ramifications of his tweet, and "not educated about the situation." Here are LeBron's comments in full: pic.twitter.com/Rwjnchm2w3 — Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) October 15, 2019 “I believe he was either misinformed or not really educated on the situation, and if he was, then so be it,” James said of the Houston Rockets general manager. James’ jerseys were burned in Hong Kong but, hey, China buys sneakers too. Is this the moment that haunts James for 30 years? The row has flared up ahead of the NBA’s possible restart with CCTV stating it will not show games and Global Times calling for Morey to be sacked . There is a certain irony in The Last Dance showing up Jordan’s politics. Unlike the rest of the world outside the US (where it is broadcast on ESPN), fans in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan cannot watch it on Netflix because the Greater China NBA rights are controlled by China. Republicans, murder and Spike Lee – a history of Nike Air Jordans How is that not political and why is no one is speaking up? The debate over whether athletes should be political is like the one about whether they should be role models. Like it or not they are and long have been. Jordan’s framing against modern players brings to mind some other stars of the 1990s – ones remembered for early quotes but who became more political as time went on. In the Beastie Boys documentary, Beastie Boys Story , the two remaining members of the ageing rap trio talk openly and honestly on stage about their lives and careers, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horowitz and Mike “Mike D” Diamond talk of one particular episode later in their careers. Ad-Rock, by now part of a group that was involved in promoting concerts for a Free Tibet, was called out for hypocrisy over sexist and misogynistic lyrics in the Beastie’s early days. Diamond recounts what Horowitz said: “I’d rather be a hypocrite than the same person forever.” With the NBA-China feud reignited, the league may prefer silence but now is the perfect chance for the players to be hypocrites. Help us understand what you are interested in so that we can improve SCMP and provide a better experience for you. We would like to invite you to take this five-minute survey on how you engage with SCMP and the news.