Jesse Jackson Was Right: LeBron James Is No Slave

Kendrick MarshallCorrespondent IJuly 13, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO - JULY 09:  Reverend Jesse Jackson attends the All Star Celebration hosted by Barry Bonds and Jay-Z's 40/40 at Roe on July 9, 2007 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images for Berk Communications)
David Paul Morris/Getty Images

Jesse Jackson was right. I can't believe I typed that sentence while my mental state is at its peak.

Jackson was the latest to add his two cents in what seems to be the never-ending LeBron James storyline.

Jackson claimed Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert mimicked the attitude of a pre-Civil War slave owner when he penned an incendiary letter to the team's fans after reigning league MVP LeBron James decided to sign with the Miami Heat, instead of Cleveland, last week.

"He speaks as an owner of LeBron and not the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers," Jackson said in a release from his Chicago-based civil rights group, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

"His feelings of betrayal personify a slave master mentality. He sees LeBron as a runaway slave. This is an owner/employee relationship, between business partners, and LeBron honored his contract."

Gilbert accused James of quitting in playoffs versus the Boston Celtics, and turning his back on the state of Ohio by choosing not to re-sign with the Cavaliers.

"The self-declared former 'King' will be taking the 'curse' with him down south, Gilbert wrote. "And until he does 'right' by Cleveland and Ohio, James (and the town where he plays) will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma.


What Gilbert and most sports observers fail to realize is that pro athletes are not indentured servants. Just because an organization decides to shell out millions of dollars a season to that athlete does not mean the owner is entitled to make that player his personal Manchurian candidate. 

James gave Cleveland a wonderful seven years of basketball excitement and domestic and international exposure, along with untold revenue that more than likely will never be matched again. It is estimated that James added $100 million in value to the franchise alone and more than $50 million a season to downtown Cleveland.

While one could understand the anguish Gilbert felt the moment James took his talents to South Beach to team up with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh for what LeBron hopes is a better opportunity to win multiple championships, the owner acted poorly. 

To go out of your way to not say one appreciative word about the man who raised the profile of your franchise is inexcusable at best.

If that does not sound like a scorned slave owner, I don't know what does. By no means am I saying Gilbert is racist, or that his comments are racist. But he expressed the sentiment that James was his exclusive property.

James hitched a ride to Miami without consulting with the "massa" first. Didn't get boss Glibert to sign papers to leave the Big House. It results in a lynch mob burning James' No. 23 Cavaliers jersey.

I have held the belief that the African-American athlete is the most valuable commodity in all of sports. Major college football and basketball over the last 40 years has been built on the backs of the elite black athlete to the point where schools are playing in $15 million bowl games and TV networks are signing multibillion-dollar deals to televise the NCAA basketball tournament.

The NFL and NBA have especially overtaken Major League Baseball in terms of popularity and appeal due to the black athlete.

No other athlete in recent years has garnered this much interest in his sporting future to the point where hordes of fans and public relations managers created Facebook pages, shot commercials, paid for billboards, and serenaded James in hopes that the basketball star would join one of their respective teams.

For the majority of James' young life, others have directly or indirectly reaped the benefits as a result of his basketball success. During that period, James has been exploited by everyone from St. Vincent Saint Mary's High School in Akron to an entourage of family members, friends, advisers, and media outlets along the way.

Knowing this, James used his power to take the biggest risk of his career by subjecting himself to being the villain. To be hated and despised for the first time in his life in pursuit of trying to win a title. By no means is James, or any other athlete, obligated to stay bought once traded for, signed under or drafted by a particular team.

Not many modern black athletes have wielded or been allowed to wield the power they have to be more than just expensive meat, passed around from team to team at the whim of management.

While it is difficult to grasp the concept of how any pro athlete who has the yearly income that dwarfs the average American family being a slave, New York Times columnist and author William Rhoden explained the correlation in the book Forty Million Dollar Slaves.

In essence, what Jackson points to is a figurative idea rather than a literal one. Of course there is no forced labor at the hands of an unforgiving owner working the slave to near death in the midst of inhumane conditions.

According to Rhoden, even though the modern black athlete has amassed fame and wealth through pro sports, those men lack power when it comes to team ownership, media ownership, and even image ownership.

That is why we now see athletes using social network sites to break news, and comment on league, social, and personal matters.

Athletes have collectively been apprehensive, opening up to the press due to instances of misinformation, bias, and demonization as it relates to on and off the field matters.

Power to control the message enables the athlete to control how others see them, not only as performers on the field, diamond, and court, but as human beings.

Power in ownership means acquiring the ability to be the decision maker, which leads to respect, credibility, and new opportunities on a larger landscape. Being able to change or manipulate how the game is played in a boardroom is just as important as how the game is played between the lines.

All of the major power brokers who make the decisions have just a shade less melanin than the actual revenue makers. 

When an athlete questions the system or speaks out against authority, he is told to be quiet and called ungrateful.

When an authority figure such as Gilbert speaks out against an athlete, although the player significantly contributes to the wealth and notoriety of franchise, he gets supported by the fans and media who have always held resentment against athletes to begin with.

Even though NBA Commissioner David Stern fined Gilbert $100,000 for his venom laced statement, Stern was critical of James' primetime ESPN special.

"Had he asked my advice in advance, I might have suggested that he advise Cleveland at an earlier time than apparently he did that he was leaving, even without announcing where he was going, so we could have eliminated that," Stern said.

"I would have advised him not to embark on what has been come known as 'The Decision.' I think that the advice that he received on this was poor."

So it is fine and dandy for the league to broadcast the NBA Draft, where team management decides the fate of amateur athletes, but it is frowned upon for the league's most marketable athlete to do a similar thing when it comes to his career endeavors?

As long as the league and its representatives are in control of the message and the way it is delivered, it is fine. The players should just be be grateful to be paid field hands, I suppose.

If that is the case, then Jackson is right.


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