Reverend Jesse Jackson inserted race into the debate of LeBron James’s departure from Cleveland. Yet the National Basketball Association sets the pace for blacks in major professional sports.
“I have not seen any racial tension between owners and players,” said Richard Lapchick, author of the 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card, published June 9, giving the league an “A” for race relations. “The NBA is the industry leader.”
The racial composition of sports franchises drew attention after Jackson criticized the comments of Dan Gilbert, the majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who said last week that James’s decision to sign with the Miami Heat was a “shocking act of disloyalty.”
“His feelings of betrayal personify a slave master mentality,” Jackson wrote in a statement released yesterday by his Chicago-based Rainbow PUSH Coalition. “He sees LeBron as a runaway slave.”
While Jackson acknowledged the NBA’s progress, he said Gilbert’s remarks hurt the league and reflected the mindset of his peers.
“Owners do have this proprietorship mentality,” Jackson said in a telephone interview today. “You can own a player’s contract for the tenure of a contract, and LeBron honored that contract.”
James, the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player, announced July 8 that he would join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat after seven seasons playing for the Cavs.
“You simply don’t deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal,” Gilbert wrote in a letter to Cleveland supporters posted on the team website shortly after the announcement. Gilbert, who is the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans Inc. based in Livonia, Michigan, has owned the Cavaliers since March 2005.
“I strongly disagree with Rev. Jesse Jackson’s recent comments and we are not going to engage in any related discussion on it,” Gilbert said in a statement.
NBA spokesman Tim Frank said the league has no comment.
Seventy-seven percent of players and 27 percent of head coaches in basketball are black, compared with 67 percent and 19 percent in the National Football League and 9 percent and 13 percent in Major League Baseball, Lapchick said. Michael Jordan, who owns the NBA Charlotte Bobcats, is the only majority owner of a men’s professional team who is black, said Lapchick, founder of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
Cavalier fans split over whether Gilbert’s comments -- and Jackson’s reaction to them -- were appropriate.
“I can’t believe he would say that,” said Benjamin Jackson, 22, creator of the blog “LeBron James Is Underrated,” who is not related to the Chicago civil-rights leader. Gilbert is a hero in Cleveland because his letter captured the outrage of local fans, said Jackson, a student at Ohio University in Athens.
While Gilbert was understandably hurt by James’s decision, said Alder Chapman, founder of the LeBron James Grandmothers Fan Club, the team owner was unfair to his former star.
“I was angry with the letter because he came down too hard,” said Chapman, 70, who started the club in 2006 in Akron, Ohio, James’s hometown. “These are young people that want to make their own life.”
“The grandmothers still love him,” she said.