The King Doing his thing!
Some Reflections on Race, Class and Sports
The public outrage over Basketball’s most valuable player Lebron James’s decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join the Miami Heat – abandoning the “Mistake by the Lake” for the “Magic City” – transcends the game and exposes the thorny issues of race and class that lie just beneath the surface of the good times, smiley faces and racial bon homie that is the carefully cultivated image of professional sports. The bold headline on the cover of Sunday’s New York Post calling Lebron a “Jackass” verifies the intense interests in this issue beyond the sports pages. The question is why?
Ever since the great Trinidadian historian and political theorist C.L.R. James published his path breaking study of Cricket, “Beyond a Boundary,” thoughtful people have been compelled to consider the role of sports in society as something more than simple entertainment. Indeed, James’ axiom: “He knows not cricket who only cricket knows” is equally true of basketball.
The essence of C L R’s observation is that the game of cricket embodied the values and mores of Victorian England. Indeed the distinguished historian of British diplomacy Keith A.P. Sandiford – himself a cricketer from Barbados who has subsequently written several books on the subject – has pointed out that James’ study not only affected the way he interprets British history, but “it changed the way historians of the Victorian period in general interpret the era.” For historians attempting to assess the state of race relations in America today, the Lebron James affair may prove almost as important an indicator as the election of President Obama.
The central question raised by Barack Obama’s historic election regarding race relations is whether it signaled the onset of a “post racial” American society. Some observers of the American scene were skeptical – this writer included – of claims that most white Americans had suddenly become color blind after centuries of inflicting genocide, slavery and apartheid on their non-white countrymen. Judging from the racist rhetoric and iconography of the so-called “Tea Party Patriots” and the dramatic increase of armed white militias, our skepticism has proved justified.
Hence it is in the context of a rising tide of racism on the radical right, the swelling contempt for the rights of workers in their struggle to curb corporate power through unionization, and the NAACP’s complaints about discrimination against African American workers cleaning up the gulf oil spill, that the Lebron James Affair must be viewed. The scurrilous attack on Lebron – who has been affectionately dubbed “Kings James” by his fans – leveled by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, prompted Reverend Jesse Jackson to observe that Gilbert talked like Lebron is “a runaway slave.” My thoughts exactly! Virtually every black man I know feels this way, except for certain poot butt black pundits like Johnathon Capehart of the Washington Post, who actually defended Gilbert!
Yet Johnathan Seagull is certainly in step with the weight of white public opinion, which appears to be overwhelmingly on the side of the owner. But this is a very American thing: The white public has always been on the side of white bosses when challenged by black workers. For three quarters of American history black men were the property of white men and had “no rights that white men were bound to respect” in the words of the Supreme Court in the Dread Scott Decision of 1857. And for a hundred years after the abolition of slavery that rule continued to hold true in large sections of this country; it was not changed until the Civil rights bills of the 1960’s. Hence from the landing of the Mayflower in 1620 until the passage of the voting Rights act in 1965, black men and women have enjoyed the equal protection of the laws for only forty five years in the history of the American republic! Old habits die hard.
In his self-righteous rage, induced by a sense of entitlement, the owner even had the unmitigated gall to call Lebron a megalomaniac for announcing his decision on a television special. Ironically, Dan Gilbert evidently does not grasp the fact that a middle aged billionaire business owner attacking a 25 year old worker for seeking a better job is the height of Megalomania! Sports teams trade players all the time and they learn about it in the press! The only difference in this case is that the black players are calling the shots by virtue of their marlet value and the powers bequesthed to them by free agency. This is why the owners fought against it so hard!
Furthermore, Gilbert showed the world his true character by contemptuously ignoring the fact that the ESPN special attracted ten million viewers – one of the highest ratings of all times for a cable show, and raised 3 million dollars for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, a lifeline for many kids who don’t have billionaire dads. The two times Academy Award winning actor Denzell Washington said theses clubs virtually saved his life! That most Americans can’t see who the villain is here, especially when it is so obvious, suggests that they remain blinded by their biases on race and class….in spite of the election of Barack Obama.
The Cover Photo That Shocked The Racists
Harlem, New York
July 13, 2010