There is so much wrong with this entire LeBron James fiasco it would take a year to flesh it all out, by which time LeBron may have his first ring (courtesy of Dwyane Wade and the backup dancers down in South Beach). Reactions have been varied, as expected. This decision will affect the NBA game and business. The most interesting conversation to come from this ordeal surrounds Jesse Jackson’s comments which allude to the Plantation Model in sports. All I can say to this is amen.
William Rhoden’s 40 Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete examines this phenomenon by first examining the rise of the Black athlete in America and then using this conversation to analyze what he perceives as a chronic lack of power in athletes. The idea seems counterintuitive, but to really understand the relationship between players and owners is to understand the difference between money and power. Yes, LeBron might be bringing in the money and he might have the power to decide where he plays, but let’s understand here. What he’ll bring in has nothing on the money he generates for everyone else.
In examining Black athletes in history, Rhoden establishes a few key concepts, the first and perhaps the most important being what he calls the “Jockey Syndrome”. The basic premise is that Black jockeys dominated the arena of horse racing, garnering fame and wealth until owners realized their importance and changed the rules of the sport to keep Black jockeys out of the races, thereby allowing owners to retain complete control over the sport. Lacking power, jockeys were unable to stand up against this shift in the way the “game” was played and were therefore unceremoniously swept aside.
When an athlete attempts to reclaim or snatch some power away, acts as unapologetic about it as LeBron James and receives this sort of backlash, we have to accept that this model persists. It’s time we explore this phenomenon and to anyone that disagrees, I will simply say: do not continue to confuse wealth and prestige with power. This comparison holds true because athletes (and not just Black ones) lack POWER.
More often than not wealth, prestige and power tend to be linked but it is the fundamental lack of power that is the crux of the unique predicament of Black athletes. Just ask Michael Jordan who summarily lost his front office position with the Washington Wizards after he stepped off the court. The fruits of their labors line the pockets of team owners and the structure that has traditionally kept athletes relegated to the fields and the courts and out of the positions of true power.