LeBron James didn’t mince words when talking about the difference between NBA and NFL owners on the latest episode of his HBO show The Shop. In a conversation with Todd Gurley, Maverick Carter and Ice Cube, he called out the “slave mentality” NFL owners have towards players while referencing roster turnover in the league and player protests.
“In the NFL they got a bunch of old white men owning teams, and they got that slave mentality. And it’s like, ‘This is my team. You do what the fuck I tell y’all to do or we get rid of y’all. I’m so appreciative in our league of [Adam Silver]. He doesn’t mind us having ... a real feeling and to be able to express that. It doesn’t even matter if Adam agrees with what we are saying, he at least wants to hear us out. As long as we are doing it in a very educational, non-violent way, then he’s absolutely okay with it.”
“The players are who make the ship go. We make it go. Every Sunday, without Todd Gurley and without Odell Beckham Jr., without those players, those guys, there is no football. And it’s the same in the NBA. ... The difference between the NBA and the NFL: the NBA [cares about] what we believe [a player] can be, the potential. In the NFL, it’s what can you do for me this Sunday or this Monday or this Thursday. And if you ain’t it, we moving on.”
NFL owners deserve most, if not all, of these types of comparisons and insults hurled their way, especially because this type of comment isn’t hyperbolic. When you require players to stand for the national anthem, or respond to Colin Kaepernick’s protest by saying “We can’t have inmates running the prison,” it signals a belief that dominion over a team means ownership of players beyond their responsibilities on the field—a worker-management relationship that simply should not exist. Dealing with all of this while playing a notoriously dangerous sport that has a short career-span on average with non-guaranteed contracts makes it even worse.
This also isn’t the first time such a comparison has been made. Richard Sherman said Jones had an “old plantation mentality” with his anthem rules, and former Texans receiver Cecil Shorts responded to McNair’s comments with, “Inmates, slaves and products. That’s all we are to the owners and others.”
Where James’s argument does fall short, however, is when he tries to tie his comments back to the NBA. He doesn’t mention owners who have done well to allow players to express themselves, he only references the good things commissioner Silver has allowed. There’s probably a reason for that. Dan Gilbert is a known Trump supporter (and he’s probably not the only one), Donald Sterling owned the Clippers for decades while being a racist sack of shit and the league did essentially blackball a player, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, for not standing during the national anthem.
Don’t get me wrong, the NBA is better about how it treats its players as human beings. That being said, just because NBA players can wear shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe” or openly speak out against racial injustice without reproach does not mean that the league is free from bad ownership and policies (i.e. the post-“Malice in the Palace” dress code, the Mavericks’ pro-sexual harassment environment, etc). The trap of believing the NBA should receive credit for not being the NFL is hard to escape from, apparently.