The National Basketball Association's final between the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder has captivated sports fans around the world. Whether the Heat or Thunder is crowned champions is less important than the courage displayed by Miami players LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh two years ago as they challenged the neo-plantation of the NBA.
For starters, most professional athletes (workers) accept their enormous salaries with silence on issues of fairness and justice. In turn, most professional owners (management) collude to push labor costs down and profits up—capitalism in its purest form. While much media attention is focused on the millions of dollars earned by players hardly any attention is given to the billions of dollars reaped by owners. Of course, owners claim the "risks" associated with putting up capital to purchase and operate their teams. Yet, the physical risks of athletes—which can be crippling for their entire lives—are often treated as a cost of doing business.
Against this background, James, Wade, and Bosh became "free agents" in 2010, allowing them to freely pursue working for other teams. Prior to the 2010-2011 basketball season, two of the three extraordinarily talented workers (James and Bosh) decided to join Wade as members of the Miami Heat.
The owners responded with a vicious media campaign that demonized LeBron, Chris, and Dwayne for acting "unfairly" to other NBA owners, reminding them just how "free" they were. Really? Moreover, owners immediately colluded to ban other players from privately decided to work together. Both actions by owners have racial overtones.
Curt Flood, a star baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals, set the precedent for the Miami players of today. In the 1970s, professional players were not permitted to negotiate their labor within contracts. Flood challenged the unfair labor practices of Major League Baseball and won. His victory allowed other professional athletes to become free agents, including James and Bosh. Like LeBron and Chris, Curt Flood was "bad-listed" by baseball owners.
Owners—then and now—have a master/slave view of their relationship to players that has been publicly challenged. Acclaimed sports writer Bill Rhoden wrote a book 20 years ago titled, 40 Million Dollar Slaves, in which he likened professional sports to life on a plantation. Likewise, Jesse Jackson asserts that Black men and women have moved "...from picking cotton balls to picking basketballs."
The exploitation of Black athletes is drawing renewed attention from academia. Professor Lateef Mtima directs the Institute for Intellectual Property & Social Justice at the Howard University School of Law. On May 17, the anniversary of the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the Institute and the Black Leadership Forum invited national scholars to address the exploitation of Black athletes, keynoted by Jesse Jackson. One of the speakers was law professor Roger Groves who argued that the NBA and other sports leagues reinvest in underserved communities from which many Black athletes ascended.
For instance, professional basketball players are required to make 10 NBA-sponsored appearances each season, many of which are autograph sessions and golf tournaments. The "NBA Cares" program is many times more of a photo opt for the League than effective community service for the players. Professor Groves proffers that since, for example, Sickle Cell Anemia is prevalent in Black communities the NBA reinvest profits from players to build Sickle Cell Health Clinics in former neighborhoods of current players. Sounds good to me.
As African Americans recently celebrated Juneteenth on June 19 I am reminded of many of my friends who proudly proclaim, "If enslaved in the 1600s, I would have escaped..." Not true. Actually, most enslaved African Americans adjusted to slavery. Therefore, the courage of LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade should be applauded on and off of the basketball court. In addition to challenging the NBA plantation, they took a stand in the senseless killing of Trayvon Martin by donning "hoodies" similar to the one worn by Trayvon on the night he was shot to death by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. The Miami Heat may or not win or the court, but in the court of courage their dunk for dignity is a victory for all workers.
Gary L. Flowers is executive director and CEO of the Black Leadership Forum.