Our VoiceHealth & Environment

America’s Sports Superstars: Pawns or Players?

Jill Garvey • Jul 12, 2010

The reaction of Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert to LeBron James’ move to Miami says a lot about America’s conflicted history of preaching individuality while practicing ownership.

Many of America’s shared values connect to the ideal of the strong, hard-working, free individual. And yet James, an American hero who epitomizes these traits by all accounts, seems to be judged only by his loyalty and humility- or lack thereof. Sports analysts insist that his decision to go to Miami proves that he is doing what’s best for his legacy and that staying in Cleveland would not have been in his best interest. In effect, LeBron epitomizes American capitalism more than anything else. He is in control of his own destiny in many ways, but make no mistake, his ascent didn’t come without burdens, and his opportunities paled in comparison to those of richer, whiter Cleveland residents.

James was given little more than natural athleticism and a few good role models. It’s hard to imagine that James, born to a single, 16-year-old mother in poverty-stricken middle-America, has much in common with his wealthy former bosses at the Cavaliers (besides maybe over-sized egos).

This particular situation says a lot about our misconceptions when it comes to opportunity and wealth in this country. LeBron James is, of course, a wealthy man and his “brand” will outlive his basketball career, but his career and wealth will never be as large or long as that of men like Dan Gilbert. And whatever wealth James brings to men like Gilbert or cities like Cleveland, it won’t translate to opportunities for the communities where young men like James come from.

Listen carefully to the language he uses when describing his relationship to Cleveland; always mindful to describe his hometown as the “Cleveland area” or “Akron.” There is good reason for this. Cleveland’s divide between rich and poor, white and black, like much of the country, only gets deeper as time goes on. James plainly illustrated this when asked by Larry King if he experienced prejudice as a child growing up in Akron. He replied that he couldn’t because he didn’t know any white people. Only as an unusually talented ninth grade athlete did James eventually come into regular contact with people outside of his African American community. That denotes a region grappling with severely segregated communities - not unlike Chicago or Detroit. One man rising out of the ashes of Akron’s post-industrial ruin hardly changes that.

If that’s not justification enough for LeBron to skip out on Cleveland, Dan Gilbert’s accusation that he “quit” during the playoffs certainly is. It doesn’t add up, and amounts to little more than Gilbert taking shots at James as he walks out of his owner’s house a free man. This is where ‘ownership’ has eroded ‘individuality.’

At times it feels like everyone wants a little piece of LeBron James - and men like Gilbert (and certainly some of the folks living in Cleveland) don’t just act like they want, they act like they’re owed. But America’s unique values tell them differently. They tell them that no human being can be owned.

Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment and say that Gilbert was right, and James did give up during the playoffs. So what? He is beholden to no one but himself and his God. As an American man it is his right to remain free from the control of other men - regardless the size of his paycheck.

Of course, this isn’t really about basketball superstars and disgruntled rich men. It’s about what Americans choose to celebrate, what they choose to condemn, and what that says about our nation at the end of the day.  Today, even with individuality giving way to the power of ownership, there is still good ‘ole freedom standing by.

That’s the beauty of our nation (and what it was built on) - liberty trumps loyalty, at least for now.

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