Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

Jesse Jackson—and why I agree with him


As a kid in the 99%-white town, I loved Jesse Jackson. The man was passionate. And different. He ran for president with style and zest, and even when he derided New York City as “Hymietown,” my youthful naivete caused me to stick by him. To me, Jackson was THE black voice in America; a man who represented the struggle of millions in a way few ever had.

Then, something about Jackson changed to me. He morphed into the world’s greatest self-promoter. If an African-American tripped and fell, or was bit by a dog, or walked out of a screening of Teen Wolf, there Jackson would bem leading a protest, screaming “Racism!” appearing on every possible television show. Literally, every possible one. He gradually expanded his spectrum, taking under his wing women, and Hispanics, and Asians, and every slighted minority. I still tried to love him for this, because the message was often righteous. But, come day’s end, I couldn’t shed my overriding feeling—that Jackson’s actions were 99% about ego, 1% about doing the right thing. When Barack Obama burst into the spotlight, Jackson actually seemed to feel slighted; as if, “How can anyone but myself speak for America’s people of color?” It was a sad, pathetic decline. Plus, he cheated on his wife—a pretty big no-no for a reverend.*

What I’m trying to say is that, as the years passed, I lost my faith in Jesse Jackson. He became a buffoon to me. A sub-buffoon. Hence, what I’m about to write has nothing to do with me being a Jesse Jackson lover, or even a liberal. It has everything to do with righteousness. And truth.

When I read Jackson’s take on the post-LeBron statement by Dan Gilbert, Cleveland’s owner, I thought: Finally! Finally, someone has the guts and vision to say this. Because Jackson’s thought, that Gilbert sees James as a “runaway slave” and that “he speaks as an owner of LeBron and not the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers” is so … so … so … so … dead-on and perfect, I don’t think it could have been stated any better. “His feelings of betrayal personify a slave master mentality,” Jackson said. “He sees LeBron as a runaway slave. This is an owner employee relationship—between business partners—and LeBron honored his contract.”

I understand the backlash to this—how can Jackson compare James, a man earning millions upon millions of dollars, to a slave? But if we look closer at the NBA, and at college and professional sports in general, there is an undeniable, unmistakable ownership mentality of athletes; almost always rich white men “owning” (initially) poor black kids. The owners control everything. If they say jump, the athletes jump. If they say crawl, the athletes crawl. They tell the athletes where to go, what to do, who to talk to and who not to talk to. If you sign a contract with, say, Miami for six years, you are under complete and total control of the owner of that organization. He is not merely a boss, because a boss generally has 9-to-5 jurisdiction, then you can do whatever the hell you want. In sports, owners are omnipotent. If someone like, say, Al Davis, wants to ruin the life of a Marcus Allen or Tim Brown for lack of loyalty, he can do so. Because they are his. His property. His chess pieces.

Now, not all owners act in such a way, obviously, and many athletes defy the system. They won’t be whipped or tortured, but they can be sold. Literally, their contract can be peddled elsewhere, and they have little choice but to go. It’s truly weird; truly off-putting; truly disconcerting. My editor at SI can’t trade me like a piece of cattle to ESPN. Your boss at [FILL IN THE BLANK] can’t force you to move to Wisconsin. Life doesn’t work that way.

If you read Gilbert’s words, then read them again, Jackson is undeniably correct. His thoughts don’t read as an angry man whose employee has taken a different job. They read as an owner who believes his property (in this case, players) damn well better not disobey. The language is eerily similar to that used of slave owners back in the day who were stung by defections to the north. “I treat my boys well. How dare they flee for elsewhere.

“How dare they.”

* Side note: Years and years ago, when I was still in Nashville, someone who had dealt with Jackson told me one of his advisors said to him: “Before you speak with the reverend, let’s make one thing clear and off the record: Jesse likes to fuck. So don’t ask him about it, and don’t bring it up. It’s who he is.”