One of my favorite books is “40 Million Dollar Slaves” by William C. Rhoden, a sports columnist for the New York Times. The book lays out the long and sorted history of the African American in Sports and how despite being increasingly well known and well paid the black professional athlete’s relationship with team ownership and leagues is still disturbingly similar to the old slave and share cropping relationships of the past.
Rhoden’s essential argument was that despite the restrictions – both racially and financially – placed on African American athletes in this country many of them can and SHOULD be doing more. If not socially and culturally, then certainly by asserting themselves more in the very business that benefits from their bodies 10 times more than it pays them.
So I must tell you, in the face of the public and social outcry against NBA star LeBron James last week, I think Rhoden’s argument has been made manifest and I couldn’t be happier.
You didn’t have to be a sports fan or even a basketball fan to hear about the biggest press conference in America (on June 8). Super-mega-star back-to-back MVP NBA player LeBron James, after spending seven successful years with the Cleveland Cavaliers, held a prime time press conference on ESPN to announce which team he would play for next season.
James’ decision to play with fellow star and friend Dwayne Wade in Miami sparked unprecedented vitriol from the sports press, many fans and most noticeably from Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Gilbert blasted James in a public letter calling him a “traitor”, a “quitter” and a poor role model for children. Point of full disclosure, I reside in the Cleveland metropolitan area, and I’m a basketball fan on top of being a political scientist. So I look at the events that have unfolded since last Thursday with a mixture of a fan’s passion and a social scientist’s detachment.
In basketball and business terms, LeBron made a wise decision, but as Rhoden so effectively pointed out in his book the public perception of the African-American athlete is always tipping towards class and race based anger. The African-American athlete can never win the image game in a world where the narrative is always going to be manipulated by older white rich men who own their teams and middle class white men who compose the majority of the press corps. This is not to say that all complaints about LeBron and his behavior are race based, but the threats of violence, burning of his jersey and intensity of the venom strikes me as about as non-racial as the passion at your average Tea Party Patriots event.
On the class level, the meme about athletes is always being shifted to focus blame and shame on the player rather than the owners. When an athlete demands higher pay he’s “About the money instead of winning” – a charge that seldom is thrown at ownership. When they demand quality of life improvements from the very teams that make billions off of them, they are called ‘spoiled’ or ‘entitled’. As if a billionaire owner who makes money off of the sweat of others isn’t. As to loyalty, players uproot their families every season only to get traded six weeks later, and player contracts are broken or adjusted whenever they get hurt, all while impotent players’ unions and commissioners look the other way.
But fans play right along and blame athletes for being spoiled public faces while owners snicker behind gold-plated doors. It’s the oldest game in America, billionaires claiming they are being aggrieved by millionaires. Billionaire CEO’s claiming that unions are hurting business. Billionaire team owners claiming player salaries are bankrupting them. Cover it up with the cloak of the ungrateful black athlete and you have a recipe for a 25-year-old businessman being burned in effigy by “Fans” – egged on by national news outlets – for deciding to exercise the same right everyone else wants, to work where you want, for who you want, for as much money as you can make legally.
I wish LeBron James luck in Miami. In the face of a constant drumbeat that tells athletes to accept whatever the owner gives them he’s made his own decision, a decision that anyone else in his position has a right to make. He may still be a 40 million dollar slave, but at least he’s choosing his own plantation.