Nice to Hear from You Again, Jesse
But to Reverend Jackson, this wasn't about sports, or loyalty, or even losing gracefully. It was about race:
Jackson said Gilbert's comments were "mean, arrogant and presumptuous."
"He speaks as an owner of LeBron and not the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers," the reverend said in a release from his Chicago-based civil rights group, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. "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."
Messages were left Sunday night seeking comment from Gilbert, the Cavaliers and James.
Jackson also called Gilbert's comments an attack on all NBA players and said the owner should face a "challenge" from the league and the players' association.
NBA spokesman Tim Frank declined comment.
Considering the fact that Mr. Gilbert was prepared to offer Mr. James about $117 million over six years to stay in Cleveland, you can hardly make the argument that those are slave wages or reminiscent of anything whatsoever having to do with slavery, unless you happen to be a professional agitator skilled at pressing the emotional hot buttons of your racialist fans.
The fact that James had the Cleveland franchise over a barrel with up to $150 million riding on his decision might make you wonder who was the "master" and who was the "slave" in this arrangement. The Cavaliers just took a huge hit as far as the value of that franchise is concerned. But it was a decision made by James that went far beyond dollars and cents and went to the heart of the purpose of professional sports franchises in large cities.
Even today, cities define themselves, at least in part, by the pride citizens take in their sports franchises. There are baseball towns, football towns, even hockey towns. But beyond that identity, professional sports franchises act as a uniting expedient that gives residents a common touchstone to gather around and share experiences. They are like the old bonfires that medieval towns would light on holidays in order to bring residents together and create a bond between the place where they live and the people they live with.
The terrible angst felt by Cleveland fans and given voice, however clumsily and inadequately, by Mr. Gilbert was real, despite the shallow and overhyped nature of the event that caused their emotional outburst. Gilbert, trying desperately to keep the team's fan base from melting away in despair (thus costing him millions of dollars), used James as a punching bag to allow Cavalier fans and the community at large the opportunity to share feelings of betrayal over the loss of their superstar (and the presumed loss of any chance at an NBA championship anytime soon). Gilbert's screed served a purpose that Jackson, with his effort to piggyback vile, racially charged language onto the LeBron James circus to garner headlines and solidify his place in the race-baiting hierarchy, refused to acknowledge.
But the good reverend outdoes himself with his imagery of the "runaway slave." Only in the twisted, racially tinged consciousness of someone who insists on creating his own reality when it comes to defining and explaining race in America would James ever be considered a "slave," or Gilbert a "slave master." James will enjoy a contract worth tens of millions of dollars, and additional endorsement deals that will be worth hundreds of millions. It is an insult to the memory of the millions who suffered the overseer's lash to try and connect James to the powerful imagery of those who risked all for a chance to run away to freedom. He is using a rhetorical atom bomb to kill a gnat.
Jackson and other African American racialists like Al Sharpton have been relegated to the background of the American media scene because of the presidency of Barack Obama. Every once in a while they will step forward to accuse Obama opponents of racism. The problem for them is that few are buying what they're selling anymore. Rightly or wrongly, the election of an African American as president has changed the dynamic of the conversation about race in America. We see ourselves differently than we did prior to Obama's election. And the snake oil being peddled by the Jesse Jacksons of the world no longer sounds like a cure-all, but rather the poison it has always been.