Is LeBron James Another $40 Million Dollar Slave?

By Geoff Decker

His public statement was the first such one of the 24-hour LeBron James Free Agency news story that invoked the historically-loaded language, calling Dan Gilbert’s reaction to James’ departure a “slave-owner mentality,” but the notion that white ownership have conspired to undermine black athletes is not an original one.

In fact it was the 286-page subject of a book by New York Times columnist William Rhoden, published in 2006.

In the book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, Rhoden submits that the disproportionate ratio of black athletes to black professionals working in the industry’s operations and ownership positions is a modern day power struggle, much as it was in the pre-Civil War era, minus the multi-million dollar contracts.

Black athletes are stripped of their sense of identity, and of their “mission,” Rhoden writes in the book. He posits that sports integration has had a net negative effect on the larger African American community.

So when Gilbert referred to James’ as narcissistic, self-promotional, cowardly, heartless and callous in a rambling, spiteful letter, he reinforced many of the book’s themes and opened himself for criticism.

To be fair Rev. Jackson wasn’t even the first person to publicly touch on the subject. That distinction fell to Rhoden as well, who wrote that “Gilbert must think he really owned LeBron James” in his July 7 column.

Rhoden left out the loaded words headlining his book, so Jackson took it upon himself to purposefully weave them into his release a couple days later. “He speaks as an owner of LeBron and not the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. 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.”

It was a recycled theme. That Rhoden’s column flew under the radar says more about news consumption’s lust for provocative language than a lack of substance.

Jackson’s comments have drawn ire from a number of critics, including Jason Whitlock and Black Sports Online, which, as the BET of sports blogs, should hardly be confused as a voice of racial reason, but is significant nonetheless as the “#1 ranked independently black-owned sports web site” according to the web site.

One thing is clear: Jackson’s comments touched a nerve.

And as important as Rhoden’s book was a few years ago, it’s important now as well, in light of LeBron’s week-long, attention-hijacking decision. With James, is it time to reconsider the black athlete power struggle?

His ability to control headlines and bring white owners to their knees hardly invokes the image of a powerless athlete. While rarely perceived as acts of idealism, LeBron’s actions seem to be more focussed on taking control than submission.

He showed immense self-importance by publicly receiving team officials as guests in his home to court him to their respective franchises. If that’s not symbolic power, at the very least, what is? And the massively-hyped hour-long ESPN announcement was carefully coordinated by LeBron’s camp to wring every ounce of mainstream media exposure as possible.

Of course, all this plays into the premise of Forty Million Dollar Slaves: the surface-level appearance of wealth is undermined by a lack of real power to influence.

But James is doing more than to take control. One of Rhoden’s chief contentions with integration in sports is that it occurred almost exclusively on the playing field, while white men continue to control the business-side.

James, however, has insisted that members of his entourage be added to his prospective team’s payroll and be given high level access to the team’s operations. When some suitors declined, like the Chicago Bulls, James’ decision was said to be in part decided by this. Say what you will of his motivations, but the end result is essentially the same.

And James’ decision to play in Miami, although widely condemned, wasn’t really about the big thing: Money. He could have gotten more by way of salary in Cleveland and more by way of endorsements in New York and New Jersey/Brooklyn. LeBron’s decision is at least one situation in which a black athlete did not bow exclusively to financial incentives.

Objective history does not look kindly on those who have won power struggles, and if LeBron is redefining the role of black athlete in America, the process will no doubt include times when his interests diverge from that of fans and owners.

For those who expect a simultaneous existence of power and idealism from James as he attempts to ascend the ladder of wealth and influence beyond that of any black athlete before him, they will find their expectations will come up short.