” For were even paradise itself my prison, Still I should long to leap the crystal walls.” -John Dryden
The Irish Poet and Playwright George Bernard Shaw in critiquing the Free Market System of Wage Labor remarked that Americans produced a system where every manager, financier, and private employer becomes a dictator. Over 100 yrs later, who would guess that the poignancy of his utterances would be corroborated by one of the richest athletes in the history of the NBA. NBA Superman Lebron James recently stated NBA owners are “old white men” with a slave mentality.
Many decry any mention of slavery in the context of his present attainment of wealth in the epicenter of Corporate America. This suggests an infantile assumption that because a man is wealthy, he is also completely free. This oversimplistic, non-sensical, childishly naive Scarface inspired jingo of “Money, Power & Respect,” seems to permeate this argument. Perhaps, this is what made Tony Montana’s subsequent murder at the conclusion of the movie a prophetic rebuttal of this tenuous ideology.
This is more so the case with black athletes. In his book Heritage, Journalist Howard Bryant analyzes the history of Black Athlete social activism in American politics. He chronicles the changes of Black commitment in social activism from 50s right up until the present day. He traces the origins of these changes to the late 1970s when athlete salaries reached the million dollar mark. Bryant makes the case that the spider web of control of the black athlete began with the process of commodification.
Bryant defines commodification as the marriage between the popularity of the professional athlete and the mass marketing campaigns of multi-billion dollar product endorsements. Through the appropriation of the images of black athletes, corporations discovered that they were able to skyrocket their profits into the stratosphere. For example, OJ Simpson’s iconic sprint through an unknown airport to catch a scripted, non-existent flight, took a struggling rental car company and made it into a global enterprise.
Both Everlast Sports Company and Decon Pest Control were perilously close to financial ruin before they bought advertising space on the American Broadcasting Company’s (ABC) fledgling sunday program known as Wide World of Sports. Through that time slot, Decon and Everlast tapped into a demographic that transformed their companies into corporate powerhouses that dominated their respective markets throughout the 70’s and early 80’s. Their products exploded in popularity when the Champ, Muhammad Ali, fresh from an epic battle with the United States Government over his refusal to be drafted for the Vietnam War, agreed to endorse both of their brands.
Bryant also presents the case of basketball’s most recognizable face of the 1980s, Michael Jordan. The immense popularity of his endorsement of Nike sneakers quite literally transformed the sports fashion industry. Michael Jordan’s image became so indelibly linked with the brand that when one thinks of Nike, he must think of Mike. This explosion of revenue created a powerfully new enticement for professional sports corporation to lure impoverished black male athletes into their ranks with the promise of instant wealth.
Because these endorsement depend upon the pavlovian purchases of an unreasoning public, anything that interferes with the rhythmic ringing of their cash registers must be quickly neutralized. Therefore, they can’t afford any athlete to tread anywhere near an issue that smacks of controversy. This necessitates the imposition of control over an athlete’s most basic conduct. But this desire to control the black athlete is also necessarily shared by professional sports franchises for much of the same reasons.
In the case of NFL or NBA, this control takes the form of a rat’s nest of multi-billion dollar public relations firms, accountants, powerful attorneys, managing agents, financial advisers, and a whole host of clean up men that protect the franchise from liability through litigation. Masquerading as the athlete’s brand representation, these networks carefully, but subtly, impose a predatory relationship with the black athlete under the guise of genuine compassion. Preying on the insecurities produced by the athlete’s new found wealth, as well as his fear of a return to poverty, they quickly imprison him in the solitary confinement of bland political correctness. His political sensibilities are dulled and held in check through a paternalistic relationship that monitors his every move and discourages on any idea of leaping the crystal wall of his opulent new prison cell.
Many think that an athlete’s wealth is solely based on his ability. Many more define his wealth as the number of zeroes on a check. But an athlete’s wealth does not come simply from a check nor his ability. It does not come from a shadowy board of directors of some amorphous sports corporation. Nor does it come from the signature of some commonly dressed, unassuming, powerful, yet inconspicuous white man. While all of these factors play a part no doubt, the most powerful representation of all of these entities is in a usurious document known as a contract.
While the athlete’s contract spells out the terms of his wealth, it also contains punitive clauses that: enjoin an athlete’s ability to enrich himself by using his own image outside of the accepted parameters of the franchise, limit his ability to seek remedies through litigation, contain suspension clauses and exorbitant fines in the event of the slightest perceived controversy on or off the field. In short, his life is equal to the shelf life of his career. His contract is his life. It is bought, it is sold, and it is traded. Therefore, he is bought, he is sold, and he is traded. While there is the absence of the traumatic violence that accompanied chattel slavery, the machinations of control as well as the racial composition of the controllers are eerily similar.
When Lebron James said that the NBA owners are “old white men” with a “slave mentality,” the comment barely registered a millimeter on the geiger counter of the black experience. In the minds of millions of everyday black men, the reality of white control over black life is simply the cost of living in America. The fact that the franchise owners are old and white is a recognition of the obvious and not a flight into the hallucinatory. Therefore, no explanation is necessary for those blessed with the gift of sight and a modicum of common sense. Only the narrow minded, myopic, simple minded imbecile would attempt to criticize James’s comment within the literal context of chattel slavery.
But because both white and black people are ashamed of this karmic stain on the white fabric of American history, they choose to dwell in a bubble of emotive exaggerated analysis in a feeble attempt to reduce James’s’ comment to an absurdity. The irony is that even though they seek to sanitize the racial connotations of Lebron’s comments, they intuitively yield to the fact that when it comes to wealth and power in America, the face on the other side of the desk is almost always white. And though James is reportedly worth 450 million dollars, he cannot escape the control of that face. I guess Biggie was right. MO MONEY, MO PROBLEMS!
Tony Maceo is a senior blogger for the Negromanosphere and the Chief Blogger @ Power & Strategy.com. Like and share the articles. Or subscribe to the website. You can also support by paypal @firstname.lastname@example.org or on Patreon @powerofstrategies. TILL NEXT TIME, HAPPY HOLIDAYS AND AS ALWAYS, I’LL HOLLA!