Slavery and the NBA?

I have been frustrated by this week’s back-and-forth between the Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and civil rights veteran Jesse Jackson. Don’t get me wrong; Dan Gilbert’s letter smacked of grating paternalism; he spoke of James like a petulant child, rather than a man who had more than fulfilled his seven-year contract. His tone was inappropriate and disrespectful. Such a strange and emotional statement should have been roundly ignored. But then Jackson weighed in and stated that Gilbert had written with a “slave master mentality,” and had treated James like a “runaway slave.” It’s really unfortunate that slavery was invoked to talk about free agency in the NBA.

As an educator, I know that few Americans have any substantive knowledge of the history of chattel slavery. It’s been disheartening to see the discussion quickly disintegrate into a simplistic debate concerning whether or not the NBA is really just a form of modern slavery where the majority of “black laborers” are unjustly controlled by “white owners.” Although elements like the draft and trades made from team to team lend themselves to hyperbolic comparison to slavery, it’s a comparison that fails to account for the extreme nature of the lived experience of American slavery.

The enslaved African American ancestors of most of today’s NBA players suffered from an extreme deprivation of basic rights. Slaves performed the most grueling work for no pay; they were provided only the subsistence necessary to support life. Slaves had no ability to improve their status or the status of their children through hard work. In fact, according to the slave codes that governed southern states, slaves could not take advantage of the most basic freedoms most Americans take for granted like raising their own children, gathering to worship, learning to read, or even entering into the most basic legal contracts.

There was certainly an ugly tone in Gilbert’s letter, and such a tone should be condemned. However, it was just a tone. Slavery was an all-encompassing, constitutionally enforced system. LeBron James is a free man, he freely chose to determine where he would work, where he and his family will live, and the best way to carve out his own future. I, for one, am thankful that none of this has anything to do with slavery.

Blair L. M. Kelley is associate professor of history at North Carolina State University and author of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson.

Ed. note: This piece also appears at And an update: Dan Gilbert was fined $100,000 by NBA Commissioner David Stern.