By Douglas Farmer  

Michael Jordan probably never said, “Republicans buy shoes, too.” If he did, time has certainly twisted its context since the supposed-quip first landed in front of readers in Sam Smith’s 1995 book, “Second Coming.”

Whether Jordan ever actually said it or not, it was an ethos his actions embraced. Jordan’s Mickey Mouse approach to activism of any kind may be the biggest mark against his outstanding career. Fortunately for Jordan, his talent was so dominant and his smile so charismatic, we have largely forgotten his shying away from some of the biggest moments of his time.

Jordan’s play and competitiveness remain revered by athletes in every sport. Fortunately for us, today’s championship winners and local role models have not followed Jordan’s lead when it comes to concerns away from the arena.

La Crosse native, Aquinas alum and Wisconsin senior point guard Bronson Koenig drew attention when he spent some time in September with Native Americans in North Dakota protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Perhaps you have no opinion regarding the possible oil pathway, but Koenig, Native American himself, worries the pipeline would damage sites with historical meaning to the Standing Rock Sioux.

He very easily could have spent those September days in the weight room, readying for the physicality of his final season in the Big Ten. Instead, Koenig not only spoke up on the issue, but also took action.

The following month, Koenig’s classmate and pick-and-roll partner Nigel Hayes started the season a few steps behind his teammates during the national anthem. His intention to continue with such until he sees changes in the treatment of African-Americans echoes San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s controversial kneeling during the anthem.

When a Wisconsin fan walked into Camp Randall dressed as Barack Obama with a noose around his neck, he underscored Hayes’ concerns.

Koenig and Hayes are emblematic of a tectonic shift.

Whereas Jordan kept a great divide between athletics and activism, today’s athletes see them as aligned, if not intertwined.

Kaepernick’s protest dominated NFL conversation through the season’s first half. The NBA’s biggest superstars opened the ESPY Awards beseeching the American public to consider other viewpoints, embrace peace and work together following the shooting in Dallas during a Black Lives Matter protest. Those same stars, along with a number of other NBA players, later took part in a public service announcement encouraging fans to vote in the election this past November.

Jordan’s apocryphal sentiment is not inaccurate: Republicans do buy shoes, too, and athletes such as Jordan often have quite a bit to lose—both in dollars and in playing time—but one taking a stance frequently encourages others to do so, as well, possibly on entirely different topics.

Be it race relations, social inequalities, environmental concerns or any other of a litany of contemporary topics, athletes commenting on them sparks awareness, conversation and, ideally, progress.

Whether you agree with their positions or not, kudos to Bronson, well done to Nigel, and thanks to all advocating for discourse.

Douglas Farmer grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, before covering sports across the country with stops at The Los Angeles Times, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Dallas Morning News. He graduated from Aquinas High School in 2008 and from the University of Notre Dame in 2012, and now spends his professional time keeping an eye on the latter’s football team.