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Here’s what happened to the $2 million Michael Jordan donated in 2016

Four years ago, MJ gave money to two organizations to foster social change

On July 25, 2016, following the police-involved shootings of two black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, and the fatal shooting of five Dallas police officers at a protest, Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan donated $1 million each to two organizations in an effort to “foster greater understanding, positive change and create a more peaceful world for ourselves, our children, our families and our communities,” he wrote in a letter that appeared on The Undefeated.

Those donations to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) were notable, not just because of the size of the grants, but also because of the notable reputation of Jordan.

Throughout his 15-year NBA career, Jordan was a global marketing superstar, with endorsement deals from the likes of Nike, Hanes, Gatorade, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. He was able to captivate the entire country by the sheer force of his charisma and basketball talent — over a six-season stretch, Jordan averaged 33 points a game, which is insane to type — but also his general ability to not offend the masses. Jordan reportedly once said, “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” a claim he never admitted to until the recent release of ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary.

So, when Jordan announced he would be donating $2 million on July 25, 2016, as a way of furthering social change, society took notice.

Four years later, here’s what happened to all that money.

The organizations

In 2016, Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the LDF, and Chief Terrence M. Cunningham of the IACP appeared on the July 10 episode of the CBS program Face the Nation. They were there to discuss the distance between law enforcement and African American communities across the country. Two weeks later, Jordan’s people called.

“Our executive director got an email out of the blue on a Sunday evening at 7 o’clock, where they said that they had a donor that wanted to make a million-dollar donation to the IACP,” Cunningham told The Undefeated.

Jordan announced the grants the next day and said he chose the LDF, which separated from the NAACP in 1957, and IACP because he believed the two organizations could “make a positive difference” while the country reeled from the recent acts of violence against African Americans and police officers.

Ifill believes the LDF was chosen because of its prioritization of constitutional protections for black people and its ability to “directly engage” with law enforcement.

“We understood that Mr. Jordan was deeply concerned about what he saw — what all Americans were seeing at that time — police killings of unarmed African Americans and a total disconnect in most instances between the way community members and civil rights groups were talking about the issue and the way law enforcement was talking about it,” Ifill said via email.

Cunningham, a retired Wellesley, Massachusetts, police chief and current deputy executive director of the IACP, said his organization’s ability to change its policy likely made it an attractive law enforcement organization for Jordan. That same year, the IACP had organized a meeting of 17 law enforcement organizations that developed a national consensus use-of-force policy for officers.

“I think it was the breadth and the reach of IACP that the Jordan folks saw when they vetted us,” Cunningham said. “And then you combine that with the power of our relationship with the legal defense fund, there’s a real opportunity for change there.”

how the money was used

With the $1 million grant, the LDF was able to further employ staff — attorneys, researchers and organizers to assist with the work of the campaign — in critical cities that have dealt with community-police issues in recent years: from monitoring consent decrees between the Justice Department and the cities of Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri to working with community members in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and North Charleston, South Carolina, following the respective shooting deaths of Terence Crutcher and Walter Scott by police officers.

Jordan’s donation, Ifill says, was also instrumental in supporting the LDF’s Race and Policing Reform Campaign, created in 2018 to “promote unbiased and responsible policing policies and practices at the national, state and local levels,” according to the LDF website. The funds were used to support staffing hires, travel, community initiatives and convenings, as well as strategic communications, including research and publications.

Ifill said an association with Jordan has allowed the LDF to attract other donors. That directly has provided financing to allow the organization to track the federal funding of police departments and make sure the departments are in compliance with Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbids discrimination on the basis of “race, color, and national origin.”

“It has allowed us to respond quickly when terrible police killings of unarmed black people occur, but it’s also allowed us to anticipate issues and intervene to amplify community voices, or to use our own voices in direct communication with law enforcement,” Ifill said.

For the IACP, Cunningham and his colleagues stressed using the grant for substantive programming that could make a difference rather than what Cunningham called “bulls—.” Jordan’s donation, along with other federal grants, has helped grow the IACP’s Institute for Community-Police Relations, whose mission is to “advance a culture of cohesion and trust between police and the communities they serve.”

The grant covered: two 15-week courses at Howard University, a historically black college and university in Washington, that sought to build a relationship between the police and African Americans (each class was open to 15 students and 15 law enforcement leaders); a postsecondary academic curriculum centered on engaging conversations between law enforcement and communities at George Mason University (in which 15 students and 15 law enforcement leaders participated); another class at the University of Denver (where 40 students and police officers participated); youth-centered programming; task force training; and the organization’s Trust Initiative, a campaign aimed at “[inspiring] law enforcement officials across the world to join members of their communities in healing and building trust,” according to a 53-page document the IACP sent Jordan’s team this year documenting how the grant was used that Cunningham shared with The Undefeated.

“We said, ‘Look, this is like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to really try to make a change and do things differently and change the profession,’ ” Cunningham said.

The grant also provided training and educational material for departments when speaking with disenfranchised groups, which a lot of them had never done before.

“You start telling a young white cop, particularly from a privileged police department, that when you stop an African American person for speeding, there are two different lenses there,” Cunningham said. “You’re looking through the lens of, ‘Hey, I’m just stopping another car.’ They’re looking through the lens of, ‘Oh, my God, what’s going to happen? Are they going to shoot me? Are they going to hurt me? Are they gonna kill me?’ ”

progress report

Both Ifill and Cunningham said they have seen some improvements in the criminal justice system.

Ifill points to the term “progressive prosecutor” entering the lexicon in recent years as a sign of progress. There has been a wave of elected prosecutors in recent years who have taken more liberal stances on criminal justice, including decriminalizing marijuana and criticizing police conduct.

As a part of the Trust Initiative, Cunningham and his colleagues met with community members in Ferguson; Albany, New York; Sacramento, California; and Fort Collins, Colorado, to build healthier relationships between black communities and law enforcement. He says police departments need to “reflect the community better” in their ranks and better educate officers about implicit biases and how those biases can manifest when a white officer comes into contact with a black civilian.

“At some point, we became very insular and thought that, ‘Hey, we’ll develop the policies and then we’ll let you know what they are and then we’re going to enforce them.’ It doesn’t work like that. There’s no legitimacy in policing if that’s the way to do it,” Cunningham said.

While Ifill and Cunningham represent opposite sides on most issues surrounding criminal justice and policing, the two admire each other. Cunningham said he faced pushback from his organization for trying to work with the other, but the two leaders agreed on two things: recruitment and retention.

Cunningham explained that while chiefs of police across the country likely want to root out bad actors, due to laws and the police officers’ rights, it’s not as easy as “waving a magic wand.” But both agree on more accountability and transparency when it comes to police misconduct.

“It turns out that police chiefs, on the whole, would like to recruit individuals who have the maturity, intellect, sensitivity and integrity to take on police work,” Ifill said. “And responsible chiefs want to figure out how to retain competent, trustworthy and experienced officers.”

That being said, neither Ifill nor Cunningham were naive to believe $2 million would fundamentally change what Ifill calls a “dysfunctional relationship” between African Americans and law enforcement that dates to the post-Reconstruction era and the turn of the 20th century.

“I tell people we didn’t get to where we are in this relationship between the police and minority communities in a year or 10 years; it’s been decades, centuries to get here,” Cunningham said. “It’s going to take us a while to turn this around.”

Ifill said change starts at the top.

“What I have believed is that improvement begins with changing the behavior of those with the most power — the police — and strengthening the voice of those with the least power — the black community,” she said.

“It is critical — especially given the abdication by the U.S. Department of Justice of this work — that LDF has been able to bring our resources to continuing the momentum towards reform. We have no intention of turning away from this work, which is imperative now more than ever.”

On Oct. 17, 2016, speaking at an IACP conference in San Diego, Cunningham formally apologized on behalf of law enforcement for “the actions of the past and the role our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.”

Cunningham points to that apology (and subsequent apologies by police chiefs in Georgia and Louisiana), his ongoing relationship with Ifill and the LDF, and the mere fact law enforcement is willing to sit down and have a conversation as steps taken to make change.

Cunningham doesn’t believe his profession is inherently broke. “The profession needed to change and it needed to evolve,” he said.

A change Jordan has helped continue.

“There are plenty of people that have needs and like to sit on the sidelines and say, ‘Hey, there are things that need to change. You need to change them.’ But for Michael Jordan to actually step up and do what he did, it was amazing,” Cunningham said.

“And I think it’s transformed the profession.”

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"