I knew there had been something missing in my life the moment I heard the report on ESPN about Jesse Jackson’s comments on the LeBron James circus.
“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone” goes the old Joni Mitchell song, and with Jesse Jackson, his recent media low profile has engendered a longing for those glory days when it seemed like every time you turned around, the race-baiting, professional grievance monger was lecturing white America — usually in near perfect iambic pentameter — about some perceived sin against his sensitive constituency. I write, of course, of the national press and their über delicate sensibilities regarding race and their penchant for granting unquestioned “moral authority” to crooked charlatans like Jackson and Al Sharpton.
Jackson burst back on the national media scene with a vengeance when he weighed in on the LeBron James controversy. His response to this excellent rant from Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert proved that, while a little rusty with his racial metaphors, Rev. Jesse had lost none of his talent for over-the-top, exaggerated, bombastic remonstrances.
I will not rehash the entire LeBron James episode. Wagner operas are shorter. Norse sagas are more interesting. However, a bare-bones summary for those who may have hidden in a cave expecting the return of the Hidden Imam might be in order.
LeBron James is an NBA superstar who, following a seven-year-stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, became a free agent on July 1. Since the end of the NBA season, ESPN, Fox Sports, Comcast SportsNet, and every other national and regional sports network, website, blog, and magazine tracked the story of LeBron’s decision making process as NBA teams lined up like obedient little children for the chance to sign the self-proclaimed “King James” to a gazillion-dollar contract.
James made his free agency quest into a spectacle that even the Romans would have been ashamed to put on. At stake: a possible NBA championship for the lucky team — if they didn’t go broke signing the mega-star to begin with. In the end, there appeared to be four or five teams with a chance to land him. The long-suffering fans of his hometown Cavaliers did everything save sacrifice a virgin to keep him in Cleveland.
Cleveland has not won anything in any sport since forever. They have also been victimized (if you hear them tell it) by a series of spectacular and serendipitous occurrences that have regularly denied their professional franchises a shot at immortality (“The Drive,” “The Shot,” and “The Hit“) As the hype went beyond the stratospheric and assumed Olympian proportions, the city of Cleveland began to, well, lose it. When the frenzy reached its peak over the 4th of July weekend, there were actually prayer vigils to keep the superstar in a Cavaliers uniform, as if God would take pity on the city and allow the bitter cup of being reminded of their past failures to pass from their lips. Ordinary people let on that if James left the city, they would be bereft of hope.
James finally went on national TV for an hour to make his ten-second bit of news: which team had he chosen? Having been adored, worshiped, and cheered to the rafters by fans, as well as pampered, catered, and deferred to by management, James announced his decision to play in Miami for the Heat.
This set off owner Gilbert, who was informed of the decision by James just a few minutes prior to the rest of us mortals:
As you now know, our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier.
This was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his “decision” unlike anything ever “witnessed” in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment.
Clearly, this is bitterly disappointing to all of us.
The good news is that the ownership team and the rest of the hard-working, loyal, and driven staff over here at your hometown Cavaliers have not betrayed you nor NEVER will betray you.
There is so much more to tell you about the events of the recent past and our more than exciting future. Over the next several days and weeks, we will be communicating much of that to you.
You simply don’t deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal.
Now, one could argue that Mr. Gilbert is a classless git who can’t take losing gracefully. Others might say that this rant, which deserves to be read in its entirety, is the best missive from an owner of a sports franchise in the history of professional games. It captures the essence of fan rage over their feelings of loyalty being tampered with by an egotistical athlete who toyed in the most spectacularly cruel fashion with their emotions right up to the last possible minute.
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.