Racism and the LeBron James Story

This blog post requires a few disclaimers for clarity. I have been a basketball fan for 25 years, and I do mean fan as in fanatic. I truly love that game. LeBron James is not my favorite basketball player. I do not particularly care for him as a person, or for how he handles himself. There is much to criticize about LeBron’s conduct and I have spent some time on sports blogs doing that. However, it is impossible to ignore the system within which this is all occurring and the invisibility of the wealthy white actors in this drama.

With that out of the way, the systemic racism blatantly evidenced in reactions to LeBron James conduct is appalling even to one as accustomed to being appalled by both racism and sports as myself.

If you have somehow escaped the coverage of LeBron James decision and actions in the recent NBA free agency period, I applaud you and you can get up to speed here. Briefly, James, a black man and Ohio native who has played for the home team Cleveland Cavaliers for the past 7 years, recently decided at the end of his contract to join the Miami Heat and play with 2 friends and fellow superstars for less money. Less money is a relative term here since he will be making in excess of $100 million in the next 6 years. James announced this decision on an hour long special on ESPN called The Decision.

In the wake of the announcement James was vilified in Cleveland and around the sports world for breaking the hearts of Cleveland fans, being a narcissistic immature villain and various other less complimentary charges. His fellow black star Dwyane Wade, who has been with the Heat since he was drafted, has also been vilified for defending him against these accusations. The Cleveland owner, Dan Gilbert, wrote a scathing letterwhich is entirely indicative of the sort of plantation mentality evident in sports owners. This system is eloquently described in the book “Forty Million Dollar Slaves.”. Gilbert calls James a “coward”, a “quitter”, a “traitor”, and makes other unsavory accusations. His jerseys were burned in effigy in Cleveland and the film of it ran nonstop on sports news and continues to grace the front pages of sports sites days later.

Rev. Jesse Jackson attempted to shine the spotlight on the systemic nature of the racism weaving through so many of these discussions and decisions pointing out that Gilbert’s letter showed a plantation mentality and endangered LeBron’s safety in Ohio. This set off an entirely new set of sports discussion on James, Gilbert and Jackson. This video clip shows two white commentators deriding Jackson and James while a black commentator tries to get anyone to focus on the safety issue that Jackson raises. The NBA fined Gilbert $100,000 dollars for his comments, however Commissioner Stern is clear in his objections to Rev. Jackson’s injection of race into the debate. These white commentators appear entirely clueless as to the widespread nature and systemic operation of racism in sports.

This saga continues to imprint the embedded nature of good white billionaires and selfish black athletes in a next generation. Kids in Cleveland are selling lemonade to pay Gilbert’s fine because he is a “good man.” In this piece, Kelly Dwyer has an interesting rebuttal chronicling the business interests of Gilbert which include loan foreclosure businesses and casinos as the money sourcing which enabled him to purchase a sports team. James’ motives and methods have been endlessly debated while Gilbert’s motives and methods in his profession are rarely mentioned. He is the wronged billionaire who may have gotten a bit out of hand.

In all of this debate, the reasons stated by the 3 stars for signing in one place becomes lost, friendship and winning. Athletes are regularly taken to task for going for the money; owners who pay it are regularly bailed out by league policies. These athletes chose winning and friendship over money and they are somehow wrong and immature for doing so. What appears to infuriate many is that the athletes took the process and power into their own hands to decide their fate. Because they did not take the biggest money route, they gained power over their lives and their situation and took vicious criticism for not behaving to stereotype. The reactions to this are eerily familiar to any woman or minority, see Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama, etc.

What is missing in this endless round of coverage on “the decision” and its aftermath is an analysis of the white actors in this drama. While Gilbert has come under some fire for his inappropriate remarks in equal measure with defense of his actions, there has been nothing but praise for Heat president Pat Riley who engineered the move. The players have been criticized for their decisions and their legacy has been debated. Riley has insured his legacy with this move. Riley personifies the invisible white actor in this drama. The black athletes take the hit and the heat, Riley gets the praise and the payday. The white owners of the Miami heat are also completely blameless while accruing vast monetary benefit.

James will be booed, Riley will be canonized, and the Heat owners will smile all the way to the bank. Whiteness wins again, because the system is inherently fixed for that outcome.