Picking Splinters: LeBron & the Race Card

I know you’ve heard a lot about LeBron James in past week. I know he’s managed to make Brett Favre look like J.D. Sallinger with the way James has affixed the media spotlight to his face since his announcement to depart Cleveland for Miami. And I know people have little appetite to hear anything more of his self-indulgent tale. But I hope folks will pardon me while I discuss a final tangent of the LeBron saga.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the ill-thought-out, reflexive response from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, but you may have switched your brain of to this debacle before one final twist.

After the dust started to settle, Jesse Jackson, who has a knack for inserting himself into national news stories, stated that he felt Gilbert’s letter addressed LeBron as though he were a “runaway slave.”

“He speaks as an owner of LeBron and not the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers,” Jackson said in a press release. “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.”

Gilbert’s comments, which characterized James’s departure to Miami as a betrayal and insinuated people had covered up the star’s rough spots, were rash, over the top, foolish and reflected very poorly on both himself and the Cavaliers organization. But a slave owner? That’s simply absurd and, to me, far more inflammatory than Gilbert’s idiotic epistle.

But here’s the thing: I’m a white guy from Connecticut, so slavery never entered my mind until Jackson dropped that bomb in the press release. During an episode of “Pardon the Interruption” last week Michael Wilbon revealed that he and several others felt as Jackson did, and that Gilbert’s reaction cut far deeper in the black community.

So, did I miss something? Am I being insensitive? Or am I just objectively analyzing the situation and concluding that Jackson wanted a taste of the media attention James was receiving. I have the utmost respect for Wilbon, so I’d love to know where he’s coming from on this topic, but my opinion was based on what was put in front of me.

I wrote off Jackson’s complaint as an inappropriate attempt to interject himself into the LeBron conversation, which was sucking up air time across the globe. LeBron bears no resemblance to a slave. For starters, his nickname is “The King” and he’s already made more money than most will ever see in several lifetimes. Furthermore, he was never limited in his freedom in any way and his recent free agency epitomized that. And nowhere in Gilbert’s comments do I see anything that remotely suggests race was a factor in his anger. He was incensed about how LeBron treated the Cavs during the free agency process and let fly. Period.

Was Gilbert’s letter dumb? Yes. Was it ignorant of the free agent process? Yes. Beyond the basic fact that Gilbert is white and James is black, did this episode have anything to do with this one of this country’s darkest trespasses? Absolutely not.

To me, when Jackson played the race card, it felt like an attempt to use race to exploit this situation to his own advantage, rather than to “protect, defend, and gain civil rights by leveling the economic and educational playing fields,” as Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH coalition advocates in its mission statement.

I don’t want to be ignorant to the reason why some feel Gilbert’s comments crossed a racial line, but I just don’t get how it’s even remotely constructive for Jackson to bring race into an equation where it wasn’t present. If anything, I think doing so worsens race relations in this country rather than making them better.

LeBron handled his free agency poorly, and he deserves criticism for that. Gilbert’s response was asinine and he deserves to be criticized for it. But a slave owner? Racism? That’s creating a racial problem where there was none. In my mind, Jackson is working against his own cause … unless that cause is simply to grab some headlines.

Race is a complex and still-evolving topic for this country. I don’t pretend to understand every point of view and would love to have some level-headed leadership to guide that discussion. But Jesse Jackson is not such a leader and proved it with his actions. He created a problem so that he can now work towards solving it. If that’s leadership, it’s no wonder we’ve been chasing our tails on this topic for all these years.