Is LeBron James a "runaway slave"?

Howard Bryant, Roland Martin, Blair LM Kelley, Brad Snyder and others weigh in on Jesse Jackson's incendiary claim

Published July 12, 2010 10:20PM (EDT)

Rev. Jesse Jackson (right) poses with  LeBron James prior to the 2010 NBA All-Star Game in Dallas on Feb. 14.
Rev. Jesse Jackson (right) poses with LeBron James prior to the 2010 NBA All-Star Game in Dallas on Feb. 14.

I missed ESPN's version of "The Bachelor," the cheesy Thursday night special hyping LeBron James' announcement that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat (technically titled "The Decision"). When I tuned in to Twitter to check my favorite commentators' reactions, there was almost as much attention to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's crazy and vicious open letter to Cavs fans, denouncing Akron native James' "narcissistic, self-promotional … cowardly betrayal." I was a little unnerved to see a couple of people I usually agree with compare Gilbert to a "slave owner," since I preferred the idea that he was like a jilted lover writing a drunken e-mail to an ex (though there was no evidence Gilbert regretted pressing "send" the next day).

I didn't see the comparison jump beyond Twitter until last night, when Rev. Jesse Jackson issued a statement blasting Gilbert for his "slave-master mentality" and claiming the owner saw James as "a runaway slave." I winced. As an editor and a writer, as well as someone who cares about social justice, I'm a stickler about language. I try not to use terms like "psychological rape," "emotional incest," "cultural genocide," "environmental holocaust" or pretty much any metaphorical variations on the term "slavery." All those words have real-world meanings, and to use them as metaphor diminishes that impact.

I might make an exception for St. Louis Cardinals star Curt Flood, one of my heroes, who challenged baseball's rules against free agency by calling himself "a well-paid slave." Racial conditions in 1970 were still bad enough that Flood's searing description made sense; it also brought home the injustice of the way baseball owners treated their players, of every race, before Flood's brave challenge to the reserve clause -- and for a few more years after it.

As someone who wrote about the role of race in the scapegoating of San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds (and was savaged for it), I believe there's a racial subtext to the outsize sports-fan freakout over James' decidedly in-your-face declaration of independence. But claiming that the basketball superstar, who had the privilege of being courted by practically every NBA team, and who's now earning $11 million a year with the Miami Heat, could in any sense be termed a slave, sets back the cause of racial justice. I asked some folks I admire on Twitter and elsewhere to weigh in. Here's what they said:

Roland Martin, columnist: I understand the sentiment expressed. Dan Gilbert came off like an angry SOB. Beyond being the owner of the Cavaliers, he sounded like the personal owner of LeBron James, who had the legal right to leave via free agency, which was a part of the collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners.

I don't use the slavery remark as if it is racial, even though James is black and Gilbert is white. I've said the same about other sports, as well as the NCAA. If someone doesn't like slavery, try indentured servant. In fact, the musician Prince once wrote "Slave" on his cheek when he was trying to win his freedom from Warner Music Group.

Gilbert's tone was paternalistic and shameful. A student of sports should go back and study Curt Flood, whose lawsuit in baseball makes free agency possible. He didn't want owners determining his fate and deciding his destiny.

What folks should not do is seize on the race aspect and study carefully how owners want to demonize players for operating on their own free will, but trade and cut players as they see fit. There is a much greater lesson to be learned from this than simply a guy leaving his hometown team. This attitude of the "ungrateful employee" who somehow "owes" the employer plays out every day in America.

Find me one person who would love to be locked into a job with invisible shackles.

Roland Martin is host/managing editor of "Washington Watch," on TV One; a CNN contributor; a senior analyst for the "Tom Joyner Morning Show"; and a nationally syndicated columnist, Creators Syndicate.

Blair LM Kelley, professor, author: I have been frustrated by this week's back and forth between Dan Gilbert and Jesse Jackson. Don't get me wrong; Gilbert's letter smacked of grating paternalism; he spoke of James like a petulant child, rather than a man who had more than fulfilled his seven-year contract. His tone was inappropriate and disrespectful. Such a strange and emotional statement should have been roundly ignored. But then Jackson weighed in. It's really unfortunate that slavery was invoked to talk about free agency in the NBA.

As an educator, I know that few Americans have any substantive knowledge of the history of chattel slavery. It's been disheartening to see the discussion quickly disintegrate into a simplistic debate concerning whether or not the NBA is really just a form of modern slavery where the majority of “black laborers” are unjustly controlled by “white owners.” Although elements like the draft and trades made from team to team lend themselves to hyperbolic comparison to slavery, it’s a comparison that fails to account for the extreme nature of the lived experience of American slavery.

The enslaved African-American ancestors of most of today’s NBA players suffered from an extreme deprivation of basic rights. Slaves performed the most grueling work for no pay, they were provided only the subsistence necessary to support life. Slaves had no ability to improve their status or the status of their children through hard work. In fact, according to the slave codes that governed Southern states, slaves could not take advantage of the most basic freedoms most Americans take for granted like raising their own children, gathering to worship, learning to read or even entering into the most basic legal contracts. There was certainly an ugly tone in Gilbert’s letter, and such a tone should be condemned.

However, it was just a tone; slavery was an all-encompassing, constitutionally enforced system. LeBron James is a free man. He freely chose to determine where he would work, where he and his family will live and the best way to carve out his own future. None of this has anything to do with slavery.

Blair LM Kelley is an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University. Her book "Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson" was published by UNC Press this spring.

Howard Bryant, sportswriter: We will deal with Jesse and LeBron and Dan in a moment, but let's first talk about language. The word slavery deserves the Nazi standard: Unless you're talking about the actual American institution of slavery, or the German National Socialist Party, the terms should never be used. The acts are too heinous, the shadows loom too large, the images are too broad and powerful to have any equivalent.

In turn, the analogies fall flat, the user diminished, the subjects -- in this case basketball and one basketball player -- never worthy.

That doesn't mean Rev. Jackson was not saying something important about the paternalism that is the owner-player relationship in sports (could we finally desist with calling every owner "mister"?) and the childish nature in which Dan Gilbert reacted to a business deal that didn't go his way.

Race is the third rail of America, class the light-socket you should not touch with wet hands. Jackson rightfully saw both in Gilbert's tone, racially insensitive in its insinuation that he "owned" James, class-ignorant in his confidence that his position of being "Mister Gilbert" allowed him to move both his -- and LeBron James' -- chess pieces when the time came. Marvin Miller should be smiling the biggest smile these days, Curt Flood a posthumous second, because in flustering the pompous ruling class enough that one would make such an ass of himself, the player, at long last, after decades of being released, traded, demoted to the minors without recourse, finally got to say "checkmate."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer at and ESPN the Magazine, and the author of "The Last Hero: The Life of Henry Aaron."

Brad Snyder, author: Jesse Jackson’s over-the-top comments comparing Dan Gilbert to a slave master reminded me of Curt Flood’s explanation to Howard Cosell about why Flood had turned down the Philadelphia Phillies’ $90,000 contract in order to contest his trade from the St. Louis Cardinals and to challenge baseball’s reserve system in court. “A well-paid slave,” Flood told a national television audience on Jan. 3, 1970, “is nonetheless a slave.”

Flood’s comments and his decision to sue Major League Baseball instantly made him Public Enemy No 1. The Supreme Court ruled against Flood, but Flood helped change public opinion and helped the players win some much-needed concessions at the negotiating table.

The differences between Flood’s case and LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland are vast. In 1970, professional athletes were owned by their teams for life. Flood sat out the 1970 season, sacrificed his future in the game, and sued not because his lawsuit would benefit him but because it would benefit future players.

Today’s athletes are more narcissistic than altruistic (Pat Tillman, the last player to walk away from a multimillion contract for a cause bigger than himself, was a tragic yet heroic exception). What has stayed the same is the paternalistic way some owners treat professional athletes. James handled his situation horribly from a public relations standpoint, but he was well within his rights to leave Cleveland for Miami.

Forty years since Flood filed his lawsuit, slavery is an inappropriate and ahistorical metaphor to describe the current state of labor relations in professional sports. The players have a lot more power now than they did in Flood’s day. It is not a perfect world: James’ salary is capped; the owners’ profits are not. At least James and other professional athletes have to ability to choose which teams to play for and for how much.

Curt Flood helped level the playing field. It would be refreshing if someone like LeBron would publicly thank Curt for what he did for them.

Brad Snyder is the author of "A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports" and a professor at University of Wisconsin Law School

Toure, columnist, author: I don't buy the "rich athletes are high-priced slaves" meme. If you're becoming rich by willingly doing something you love you're not a slave. Still sometimes there's weird massa and slave undertones when men, who are almost all white, own the rights to men, who are almost all black -- and the white men control the movements of the black men from where they work to what they can wear as they enter the arena.

"SportsCenter" anchors sometimes must do linguistic tightrope walking to avoid saying the owners own the players and Gilbert seemed to slip off the tightrope with his indignation over the fact that LeBron made a fair and ethical business decision to do what he wanted, and not what Gilbert wanted him to do. So Jesse Jackson did not inject race into a situation where it did not exist. There is no race card to be played -- as if its not being played means race is not in the situation. We don't have to mention race for it to be there.

The long-term strategizing in LeBronapalooza is, I think, unprecedented in sports: Almost always it's the owner/GM/agent class that controls who plays where and the players who must go where they're sent. Players are often traded against their will and thus forced to move their families to cities they don't want to live in. In LeBronathon the tail appears to be wagging the dog.

The player crafted his last contract so that he could be a free agent at a certain time and thus the player/employee was able to decide where he would work and, most critically, alongside who he wanted, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. LeBron has meta-played the game and thus set himself up to have a team that could become part of history. That's why I'm calling the Miami Heat "Team ProChoice." Where other teams are constructed of units cobbled together by white men via drafts and trades and signings orchestrated by (almost always) white men, Miami is a team where the black players chose to align themselves, and found a way to make it work. That's Kujichagulia -- aka self-determination!

Toure is the host of "The Hiphop Shop" (Wednesday, 11 p.m.) on Fuse, a columnist for Vibe, a contributor to Rolling Stone and the author of three books. He is now at work on a book about black identity.

Elon James White, writer, comedian: All families have an uncle who says crazy things that might be based in some sort of reality, but they’ve obviously taken the proverbial ball and run a bit too far. Ladies and gentlemen, please meet black people’s Uncle Jesse.

You may remember the last time he skated past acceptable commentary and mumbled something about cutting off then-Sen. Obama’s testicles. His latest commentary on LeBron, although not as shocking, is still out of order.

I don’t think most people who have read Dan Gilbert’s comic sans opus of hate about James thought it to be reasonable. Gilbert is obviously being an ass. This is beyond being a sore loser. This is being a cry baby on a national scale. But to throw out the slave owner mentality comment seems out of order. He wasn’t getting free labor out of James. He wasn’t requesting James call him ‘massa,’ and he wasn’t threatening to whip him either.

Gilbert is being what the Native Americans call “a dick.” Slavery has zero to do with this and to bring it up with something so trivial when the verdict of the police officer who shot Oscar Grant just came out makes this sillier and downright irresponsible. Why even step into this overly hyped example of America’s indulgence in the asinine when, as a supposed “black leader,” so much more begs your attention. Please, Uncle Jesse. Just sit down and finish eating your turkey.

Elon James White is a writer/comedian and host of This Week in Blackness. He has been featured on VH1, MSNBC and White will be a featured panelist and opening night host of Netroots Nation 2010.

Debra Dickerson, author: But for Twitter, I wouldn't know this whole LeBron James thing was happening. Nor did I care until I read of the whole slave comparison nonsense.

STOP IT! Yeah, I know about the "$40 million slave" meme. I know how rich white owners make millions more than their black players. I know they likely despise most of their players. I know, I know, I know.

Still, let's get real. Just as comparing run-of-the-mill morons to Hitler is an insult to the planet, let alone those harmed by WWII, so is comparing Kunta and Kizzy to LeBron. Since I feel confident that any slave chosen at random would smack those who make this comparison, I feel equally confident in shaming those who do so now. The simple fact that blacks themselves get to make these ludicrous statements, without getting either sold or whipped, really ought to end this discussion. It's 2010, Negroes. Stop being so lazy and find a relevant comparison.

Debra Dickerson is the author of "An American Story" and "The End of Blackness" and a former intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force.

Bomani Jones, radio host, sportswriter: Was anything more predictably explosive than the combination of Jesse Jackson and slavery? Jesse's been talking for a living too long to not know what the response would be. But even if Jackson aimed to shock -- and if so, he was clearly effective -- his underlying point was correct, even if semantically clumsy.

Bottom line: LeBron James took control of his financial existence in a way no athlete has before, with his friends in charge, treating the powers that be like powers that were. To discount the role that played in the tone and text of Dan Gilbert's foolishly ironic manifesto, which accused an independent contractor of betrayal, is naive. And while Jesse's credibility is shaky, his point is solid.

Bomani Jones is the host of "The Morning Jones" on Sirius Channel 98, Hardcore Sports Radio, and is a contributor to You can find "The Morning Jones" at the iTunes Store.

Jonathan Capehart, writer: When we talked about this on “Morning Joe” today, I was beside myself. Sorta like when I was asked last Friday on “The Dylan Ratigan Show” about the nutty accusation that the tanning tax is a form of reverse racism on the part of President Obama against whites. Some things are so ridiculous that it hurts to even talk about them lest you give them more credibility than they deserve.

I don’t blame Gilbert or Cleveland or anyone else who feels stiffed by James one bit for being rip-roaring angry. Of course they feel betrayed. James was more than a basketball player or a cash cow to the Cavaliers management and the city of Cleveland. He was a source of pride for a city that still smarts when people talk about that river that caught fire -- 41 years ago. If the owner of the Cavaliers wants to vent in an online missive that could have been written with collage cut-outs of letters from Sports Illustrated, let him. In the James-Gilbert relationship, we all know who the master is.

Jonathan Capehart is a Washington Post editorial writer who also blogs at PostPartisan.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss, Salon contributing writer: Dan Gilbert’s ravings did not "personify the slave-master mentality" -- they are the outburst of a crazed, clingy, jilted lover. I wouldn’t rebuke Gilbert for racism; I’d get him a tub of Häagen-Dazs and some tissues. But Jesse Jackson had one valid point, suggesting the extremist reaction to Gilbert's tirade and James' departure could put the new Miami Heat star in some danger.

So while Gilbert's sniffles water down the Cookies & Cream, I send a message to ESPN's Bill Simmons: Fans are riled up enough about this, they don’t need more riling. Simmons played host to Cleveland catharsis with an incendiary post that invited angry fans to weigh in, and featured various folks boasting about burning James' Cavaliers jersey in effigy. "We had a LeBronfire last night," one fan bragged. "We burn his jersey not to hurt him, but for us. Destruction is great company to misery," explained another.

LeBron does not owe Cleveland anything, but he owed himself a professional departure. Instead, James foolishly left on the wings of narcissism. That’s unfortunate, but let’s not encourage those who believe he owed Cleveland his life, literally or figuratively. Simmons should have known better than to fuel this brand of near-violent grievance. I'm waiting for Simmons to perhaps gently suggest to his fans that James doesn't deserve to be torched, even in effigy.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss is a Salon contributing writer who covered "The Decision" and its run-up      

By Joan Walsh

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