“Even Sugar Got Free…” *:
Black Athletes and the Contradictions of Free Agency
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan (in Exile)
One of the common narrative frames of the 2012 playoffs was how the Oklahoma City Thunder did things the “right way.” Ignoring the team’s move from Seattle, a fact that left Sonics fans with a bitter taste in their mouth, Thunder mania stemmed from the fact that the bulk of their roster was made-up of draft picks and players who arrived via trade. Embodying a “rags-to-riches” ideology, one that celebrates individuals and institutions that supposedly pull themselves up by their bootstraps (or draft-picks), the celebration of the Thunder makes perfects sense given our national imagination about sports. In praising the Thunder for choosing to trade several players to acquire endless draft picks (a fact that surely also had to do with the pending sale of the team and dumping salary), fans and media pundits reimagined the Thunder as creating their own destiny.
This celebratory tone was amplified during the 2012 finals, which pitted the Thunder against the Heat, an organization imagined as everything wrong with sports. “The fact that we equate the Heat with evil and the Thunder with good reveals one big truth: sports fans and media hate it when a player chooses where he plays, and love it when a player has no choice over where he plays,” writes Nicholas Schwartz. “Writers and fans simply approve when a player has absolutely no choice over where he can play — like the Oklahoma City players dealt through trades — and disapprove when a player has a choice in which uniform he puts on. The criticism of the Heat ‘model’ for winning reveals that sports fans simply don’t want athletes to have any power over the course of their careers.”
What is clear from this “logic” and the celebration of the Thunder is that fans and media alike don’t like free agency. Worse yet, they don’t approve of players, particularly young African American men, determining their own future. In wake of LeBron James’ decision to take his talents to South Beach, William Rhoden noted the oppositional nature of free agency for the black athlete: “There are many lessons contained in the James free-agency drama. The first is controlling the game, not allowing the game to control you. Here is James, a 25-year-old African-American man with a high school diploma, commanding a global stage.” The response that he should “shut up and play” where he is told to play reflects the hegemony of white racial framing. The message is clear: professional basketball players are lucky enough to earn millions of dollars for playing a game, and that the least they can be is grateful, appreciated and loyal to their fans and city.
The contempt for player movement within the NBA has been on full display in recent years. The condemnation directed at LeBron James both typified this mentality all while perpetuating the idea that free agency is destroying the league. On The Bleacher Report, Asher Chancey named James the #1 worst traitor in sports history (the Sonics/Thunders’ owners are no where on the list). “By holding a prime-time news conference to announce to the world that the City of Cleveland was losing one the best athletes in professional sports, LeBron showed all the qualities we suspect our favorite athletes possess but hope they do not,” he notes. “LeBron showed the entire world that he has an enormous ego, he cares about himself first and all others second, and that the game of basketball is just that to him, a game.”
In other words, in holding a nationally held press conference that millions of people chose to watch, by raising money for the Boys and Girl’s Club, and in exercising his rights under free agency, he was denigrated (and dehumanized) as a traitor. He was said to be worse than owners who moved their teams to other cities or franchises that fire its workers because of a lockout.
With jerseys burning in the background and fans ranting in virtual spaces, Dan Gilbert made clear his feelings about James and the enterprise of free agency: