LeBron James, the basketball superstar and arguably the most influential American athlete, criticized the ownership of the National Football League for adopting a “slave mentality” toward players.
“In the NFL they got a bunch of old white men owning teams and they got that slave mentality,” James said during the Dec. 21 episode of his HBO talk show The Shop. “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.'”
In 2016, a number of NFL players began kneeling during the national anthem before games to call attention to police violence against black youth.
Critics, including president Donald Trump and many team owners, mischaracterized the protests and accused the players of being unpatriotic and attacking the military. This highlighted already deep racial disparities between athletes and the people who profit from them: Only two of the NFL’s owners are people of color; three NBA owners meet that standard.
One prominent star who took a knee, former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, is currently suing the league (paywall) for colluding to keep him off the field because of his political actions. According to ESPN, after one 2017 meeting, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair warned his fellow owners that “we can’t have the inmates running the prison.”
James contrasted that attitude with the approach taken by his league, the National Basketball Association, which has allowed players to wear shorts with political messages during warm-ups.
“It doesn’t even matter if [NBA commissioner Adam Silver] agrees with what we are saying, he at least wants to hear us out,” James said. “As long as we are doing it in a very educational, non-violent way, then he’s absolutely okay with it.”
James is hardly the first athlete to make this observation of the NFL’s owners. NFL players who have called out their league include star cornerback Richard Sherman (“the old plantation mentality”), receiver Cecil Shorts (“inmates, slaves and products. That’s all we are to the owners”), and running back Adrian Peterson (“modern-day slavery”).
But James, a three-time NBA champion and four-time MVP, has a platform few athletes can match, with his own HBO show, an enormous social media following, and the ability to influence the conversation with a few words.
It’s not the first time that James has weighed in on political controversy. He stepped in to defend his NBA rival Steph Curry after Trump criticized the three-point maestro. Conservative pundit Laura Ingraham told James to “shut up and dribble.”
“We will definitely not shut up and dribble,” James said in an interview afterward.