In your court

January 18, 1999|By Marilyn McCraven

"The status of American blacks doesn't bother him. . . . Simply, M.J. is a professional basketball player with an acute sense of business and an oversized ego."

-- Le Monde, Paris

MICHAEL Jordan's legacy as a professional basketball player is sealed: He's the greatest in the history of the game.

But as the above quote from a French newspaper reveals, Mr. Jordan needs to work on his legacy as a humanitarian.

He has several role models in the African-American community that he could emulate: Comedian Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, gave $20 million to the historically black Spelman College in Atlanta. Oprah Winfrey provided a $500,000 scholarship endowment for her alma mater, Tennessee State University in Nashville, and started a foundation to help people getting off welfare.

Black Enterprise Publisher Earl G. Graves pledged $1 million to Morgan State University's business school.

For many people, it seems odd that Mr. Jordan -- who earned about $80 million in endorsements and salary last year -- has not joined the elite group of wealthy African Americans who practice the time-honored tradition of reaching back to help black institutions.

After all, black philanthropy has been around since the 1700s, when black people set up mutual-aid societies through churches and fraternal groups to do such things as provide help for orphans and widows and buy the freedom of slaves.

To be fair, Mr. Jordan has started a foundation that helps children in his adopted city of Chicago and in his native North Carolina. Also, he gave $1 million to the institute for families at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But Mr. Jordan hasn't stepped up in a big way for the many historically black institutions that will never receive the major gifts that a state university like North Carolina enjoys.

For example, Meharry Medical College in Nashville, which was struggling to survive a decade ago, could use a sizeable donation to help in its $100 million fund-raising effort. Likewise, Morehouse College, Martin Luther King Jr.'s alma mater, is conducting a $150 million fund-raising drive.

As an influential role model, Mr. Jordan could help spark a philantropic movement among members of the black middle class, which has not helped its institutions to the extent that it could.

Some 250,000 black households have annual incomes of more than $100,000, which -- when adjusted for inflation -- represents a three-fold increase over the past generation.

In speaking to the National Association of Black Journalists several years ago, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell paid tribute to his racial ancestors, saying he "stands on the shoulders" of the folks who helped beat Jim Crow. And thus he feels obligated to help others to the full extent that he can.

The 6-foot-6 Mr. Jordan stands on those same shoulders.

Marilyn McCraven is editor of the Opinion Commentary page.

Pub Date: 1/18/99

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