Independence Day: How LeBron James’ Return to Cleveland’ Explains So Much About Labor in America

Each semester, I pose the following question to my students. “What is the longest running war in America?” My students respond with innumerable conflicts and combatants. I am never surprised that they fail to correctly answer this query. After listening to a plethora of incorrect guesses, I invariably step in and relate, “the longest running war in America is a war between workers and owners, the haves and the have-nots.” For many of my students this is the initial foray into Labor matters. I relate to them a mantra that under girded the American labor movement during its more rambunctious era, “owners have no rights that workers are bound to respect.”

Considering this storied history of conflict between workers and owners, I am never surprised when the issue of worker rights emerges and even less amused when the issue of race is interjected into the fold. I have seen this scenario so frequently that I take it for granted that the workers, regardless of their race/ethnicity, will not only lose this battle, but also witness their fellow workers idly watching, if not celebrating, their demise.

As a native of the great state of Ohio, this past summer was simultaneously exhilarating and vindicating for many sports fans for one simple reason; the possibility Lebron 3that ‘King James’, the moniker bestowed upon NBA superstar LeBron James, may return to his home state. Ohioans celebrated James’ decision for one reason, it appeared to make them instant contenders for the coveted NBA championship that has eluded their grasp since their creation in 1970. During his first stint in Cleveland, ‘King James’ led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals before succumbing to the San Antonio Spurs in 2007. Of course, all of this occurred prior to ‘King James’ jilting the franchise in favor of South Beach and the opportunity to play alongside Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.

As with most NBA matters from the right to issue a political statement such as calling for Donald Sterling’s ouster as the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers to wearing ‘I Can’t Lebron 2Breathe Shirts’ or making a career decision regarding where he will ply his trade, LeBron James consistently finds himself at the center of league matters. The most recent LeBron incident revolves around which NBA franchise would be fortunate enough to have ‘King James’ join their roster.

Free Agency allows for NBA players who have fulfilled their contractual obligation to decide their next destination. Although the process appears relatively straightforward and mundane, nothing could be further from the truth as the selection of an NBA franchise invariably leaves fans unsettled when a player leaves for another team. Emotionalism emanating from NBA fans seems to trump a player’s rights in this matter, at least in the court of public opinion. The hatred spewed at NBA players is rarely, if ever, directed toward league owners.

NBA owners, like the leaders of any industry, have the luxury of making financially driven ‘business decisions’ to maximize their profit margins without any consideration of their employees. Hence, James is on solid footing when he articulates the following, “The question I have…is when a player decides to decide his own fate, there is always questions about it?…And, ‘Why did this guy do that, do that and do this?’ When an organization decides to go elsewhere for a player, it’s that they did what’s best for the team. Let’s figure that out some time.” James is absolutely correct in his summation that historically loyalty between worker and employee has been a one-way street.

Former Miami Heat teammate Dwayne Wade chimed in on this matter to support James by remarking “When a player makes a decision, and however you make it, there is Wadealways backlash. But when an organization makes it, it’s the right thing for an organization to do. And it’s fine. Josh Smith just got cut. It was the right thing for the Pistons to do…It’s fine. LeBron James or players make decisions in free agency, then it becomes a different situation.”

LeBron James’ former Miami Heat and now Cleveland Cavalier teammate relates that the hypocrisy surrounding player movement is simply an aspect of being an NBA player. Jones states that there is always a portion of any fanbase “that will say that’s disloyal for you to leave a place where you were jjembraced to go back somewhere else. And so the place you’re coming to is excited and the place you’re leaving thinks you’re being disloyal…they view it as the player leaving the fans…But when the organization shutters a player, it’s seen as a business move.”

If the history of the American Labor Movement is any indicator, James, and by extension any employee, regardless of race, gender, occupation, or skill-level, must realize that the dynamics between workers and owners will remain hypocritical and inconsistent. Workers have never been considered as anything more than means of production to be exploited for their labor by owners, it is quite simply an exploitive relationship that has existed for so long that most Americans can not conceptualize labor relations existing in any other shape, form, or fashion.

And it is for this reason that owners, regardless of their industry, will continue to have the audacity to run their businesses with no regard for how their bottom line decisions affect their employees yet scream and holler when any employee, including million dollar NBA players such as LeBron James makes a similar decision to do what is best for him; the only problem that I puzzles me is the failure of poor, working-class, and middle-class Americans inability to support their fellow worker in his decision.

James Thomas Jones III


© Manhood, Race, and Culture 2014

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