As if our recent, acrimonious presidential election wasn’t bad enough, now LeBron James and Phil Jackson are fighting, and their argument reveals a lot about what is wrong with our culture right now. This isn’t some backup quarterback taking a knee to protest racism before his terrible team plays a horrible game of football. James is, without question, the best basketball player around (and one of the all-time greats). Jackson has won more NBA titles (as player and coach) than anyone else. When household names such as these decide to argue publicly, America pays attention.
Upon further inspection, however, this so-called controversy—like so many controversies in our obsessively sensitive modern world—fails to live up to the hype.
The verbal sparring began this past Monday when Phil Jackson was asked by ESPN.com’s Jackie MacMullan if former superstars such as Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan would ever have bolted winning teams in the same way LeBron left the Miami Heat two years ago to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“It had to hurt when [Miami] lost LeBron. That was definitely a slap in the face. But there were a lot of little things that came out of that. When LeBron was playing with the Heat, they went to Cleveland and he wanted to spend the night. They don’t do overnights. Teams just don’t. So now (coach Erik) Spoelstra has to text Riley and say, ‘What do I do in this situation?’ And Pat, who has iron-fist rules, answers, ‘You are on the plane, you are with this team.’ You can’t hold up the whole team because you and your mom and your posse want to spend an extra night in Cleveland.
I always thought Pat had this really nice vibe with his guys. But something happened there where it broke down. I do know LeBron likes special treatment. He needs things his way.”
Can you identify the (allegedly) extremely racist remark in that quote? If not, according to LeBron James (and high-minded sports commentators everywhere) you are probably a racist yourself.
The magic word that launched a thousand empty-headed Tweets was “posse.” Please take a moment to compose yourself.
For the non-sports fans among you, it is important to know that it has been well documented over the years that LeBron employs a group of childhood friends that handle various aspects of James’ off-the-court activities—a posse of people around him, that is.
On Tuesday, LeBron was asked to comment on Phil Jackson’s cavalier use of this supposedly devastating noun:
“I’ve been in the league for fourteen years and from the beginning two years in, I felt like I wanted to put my guys in positions of power, give those guys an opportunity to better themselves,” James said. “You know, in the beginning we were highly criticized and I was highly criticized about what I wanted to do to help some guys around me become very successful in business.
“It just sucks that now at this point having one of the biggest businesses you can have both on and off the floor, having a certified agent in Rich Paul, having a certified business partner in Maverick Carter that’s done so many great business [deals], that the title for young African-Americans is the word ‘posse.'”
The leap from “rival team’s president taking a harmless shot at the best player in the league” to “this guy is definitely super racist and needs to be called out for it” is astonishing.
Phil Jackson is one of the most respected sports figures of the past century. He has dedicated his life to on- and off-the-court instruction of young black men. His protégés include Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. These African-American titans of the hardwood have professed their loyalty to, and friendship with, Jackson. He is an outspoken progressive liberal.
Is what he said about LeBron a cheap shot? Absolutely. Phil Jackson is a notorious rabble-rouser who likes to poke the bear any chance he gets. But does calling LeBron’s group of friends the same thing that every professional athlete’s group of friends is called (regardless of their race) worth erasing a lifetime of hard work?
Evidently it is, because every interaction is politicized and turned into an issue of racism today.
Sports fans tune in to shows like Sports Center, in large part, because we simply want to know the score of the game. Sports bring people together and give us respite from the vitriol of politics. If two professionals want to spar in the ring of public opinion, that’s fine—but let’s not turn sports talk radio and television into the place to settle the nation’s socio-economic and race problems.
On behalf of beleaguered American sports fans, please give us a much-needed break and focus on your sport—that goes for the players, coaches, and the sports media. We just survived a bitter election. We want to be entertained, not lectured at.