300 Years Ago, Lebron James Would’ve Been A High Priced Slave: “Ability Utility” In Its Social and Cultural Context
By David Metcalfe
May 14, 2019
According to a 2018 article in Forbes magazine, Lebron James has a net worth of 450 million dollars (Badenhauser, 2018). In addition to his salary paying out about $300 million over his 15 year career, he has also signed lucrative endorsement deals (his first deal with Nike paid out $100 million, and his current deal is expected to eventually pay $1 billion), and invested successfully in and represented a variety of businesses (such as Beats Electronics and Blaze Pizza). With his enormous amount of money, he’s been able to fund a variety of philanthropic enterprises, such as “The Boys and Girls Club of America”, “The ‘I Promise’ School”, and “The National History Museum of African American History and Culture” (giving several million to each). After moving to Los Angeles, James bought a 23 million dollar house!
In a capitalist society where money is a key determinant in status, influence, and power, Lebron has earned the top tier of socioeconomic stardom.
In addition to his enormous amount of money, he boasts huge social media influence, with over 42 million followers on Twitter, 49 million on Instagram, and 23 million on Facebook. His games are watched with about 20% higher average viewership than other players, from 2 million in regular season games and as high as 20 million in the playoffs (Zagoria, 2019). When he makes social and political statements, he has a massive audience, and has the potential to affect major change. For example, after a black teenager (Trayvon Martin) was fatally shot during an altercation with a security officer, James posted this photo of him and his teammates wearing black hoodies (what Trayvon was wearing at the time of the shooting).
Or in 2014, after Eric Garner was choked to death by a police officer, Lebron and several other NBA players wore t-shirts with Eric’s somber last words: “I can’t breathe”. James has had substantial influence on the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
All that to say, Lebron James is a cultural superstar with massive success in every social category, whether it be wealth, influence, freedom, etc. A fair question to consider is: how did he become so successful?
James was born to a 16 year old mother, and his father was a criminal who played little to no part in his son’s life. His mother was very poor, and decided to give him away. It just so happened that she gave him to Frank Walker, a youth football coach and athletic trainer, who introduced him to basketball at age 9. Lebron excelled, both because of his physical ability and mental ability to understand basketball. James also played football in high school, and did so well at it, many sports analysts have said that he could’ve played in the NFL if he had wanted to (Saslow, 2013).
There aren’t many people in the world like Lebron James. He stands 6 ft 8 inches tall and weighs over 250 lbs. And yet, he is extremely fast, has a 44 inch vertical, has very good co-ordination, and is incredibly strong. He was the most hyped high school player to ever enter the NBA, and he only exceeded the expectations, becoming possibly the greatest player of all time.
There are a lot of things that could’ve gone wrong for Lebron. African American men who grow up in fatherless homes are dramatically more likely to engage in drug use and criminal activity. As Cory Ellis writes in his seminar paper for the University of Wisconsin, men who grow up in fatherless homes are 9 times more likely to go to prison than men who had a father present. For black men, it doubles (to 18 times more likely). This put Lebron at a severe social disadvantage being born into a single parent home to a teenage mother, as well as being black (Ellis, 2009).
But Lebron was fortunate to not only get adopted, but by an athletic coach and trainer who provided everything he needed to excel at sports. Lebron was obviously born with incredible genetics, being naturally tall, fast, and strong. But here’s the really important thing I want to address: he was situated in a social community that praised his abilities.
I want you to imagine, for a moment, that instead of being born in Ohio in 1984, Lebron had been born in Ohio 300 years earlier, in 1684. Black slavery was commonplace in Ohio at that time (not emancipated constitutionally until 1802). Instead of his height, speed, and strength being used for this:
It would have been used for this:
Instead of being worth $450 million by age 33, he would have been the property of some white slave owner, worth whatever the highest bidder is willing to pay to own him. Instead of having a platform of millions, and the ability to make major social and political statements, he would have had to stay quiet or else get beaten or killed. Instead of being venerated as a celebrity, he would have had such low status he wouldn’t even be allowed to make eye contact with a white person.
Lebron James’ incredible physical talent, intelligence, social consciousness, and business savvy would have been reduced to that of a workhorse. His physical attributes, instead of making him what he is today, would have merely increased his price on the market.
Or if Lebron had been born just 100 years earlier, in 1884, although he wouldn’t have been a slave, he wouldn’t have been able to play professional sports, due to segregation. He likely wouldn’t have been able to go to university, or at least not the same quality as the white universities. His physical talents might have landed him a physical labor job, and that’s about it (Kenyon, n.d.).
But we say that’s in the past, and in the modern day, we treat blacks equally. But, as previously mentioned, blacks face a much greater disadvantage in life than white people do. It’s not because they are genetically inferior, but because the legacies of systematic racism, in both slavery and Jim Crow, live on.
In the Trayvon Martin case, the man who killed him had called 911 previous to approaching him, claiming there was a “suspicious person” and that “this guy looks like he is up to no good and is on drugs or something.” (University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, 2017). Before Trayvon Martin did anything wrong, George Zimmerman had already profiled him as a criminal, just because he was a black teenager in a dark hoodie. Zimmerman approached him with hostility, got in a physical altercation, and then used his gun to kill Trayvon.
Barack Obama gave an impromptu speech following the shooting, in which he said, “Trayvon could have been me 35 years ago.” (Cohen, 2013).
Obama, much like Lebron James, had a rough upbringing, without a father present. He struggled with drugs and alcohol in his youth, and was subject to racial profiling on several instances. Obama realizes the prejudice still present today in the criminal justice system as well as in the day to day lives of people. Obama realizes that he could easily have been the victim of a similar crime like Trayvon Martin was.
And that’s why, when Lebron James posts this on Twitter:
It’s not just a political statement- it’s a personal one.
It’s one of despair- for Trayvon Martin as an individual, for all the black men who get shot when a white man wouldn’t have, for all the black men who get incarcerated when a white man wouldn’t have, for the atrocities of slavery, the legacy of segregation and subjugation, and all the black people today who feel its impacts, large or small.
But it’s also one of hope- that a poor, black kid born to a teenage mother with a father in jail could have a real shot at success, capitalize on it in a major way, and become one of the wealthiest, most highly respected, and most influential people in America. It’s a testament to how far we’ve come, thanks to the work of so many civil rights activists over the last 300 years.
And Laura Ingraham from “Fox News”, in her ignorance and narcissism, has the audacity to tell Lebron to “shut up and dribble.” Donald Trump went to Twitter to insult James’ intelligence saying “Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do!”
You’d think that a man who defies the odds to accomplish great things, become educated on social and political issues, and use his platform to voice a legitimate concern on a difficult issue would not be told to “shut up” or that he’s not intelligent. You’d think people would appreciate not only what he’s done, but what he’s come from, and how he’s giving back. Lebron’s philanthropy is based around helping disadvantaged people stay away from crime and drugs and achieve academic, career, and family success. His “I Promise School” is one of many programs, where they accept low income students and pay for their university tuition upon graduation. James is literally paying for hundreds of students (maybe someday thousands) to attend university, and playing a major part in helping shift racial and economic disparities that continue to plague America today.
“I know these kids basically more than they know themselves. I’ve walked the same streets, I’ve rode the same bikes on the streets they ride on, I went through the same emotions, the good, the bad, the adversity. […] Everything they’re going through as kids I know and for me to be in a position where I have the resources, the finances, the people, the structure, and the city around me, why not?” -Lebron James
It’s disturbing to think that at a different point in history, Lebron James would have been a slave, forced to work in terrible conditions until he died, simply because he’s black. But despite coming a long way since then, it is also quite disturbing to think that in our current day, Lebron James could have ended up on drugs, in prison, or shot without doing anything wrong. This is the reality for too many young, black men. Despite representing just 12% of the population, black men account for 33% of prison inmates (Gramlich, 2019). Black people use drugs at nearly the same rate as white people, and yet are incarcerated for it much more, with much greater sentencing (Rosenberg et al, 2016). According to some statistical analysis, unarmed black men are shot by police at a much higher rate than unarmed white men (Fryer, 2018).
Breaking down racial and economic barriers to success is necessary for achieving real equality of opportunity in America. People like Lebron James pave a way for that to happen, inspiring others to do the same, and in some cases, literally giving them the resources to do so.
All people, of every race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, economic condition, etc., have the the potential to develop wonderful abilities, whether it’s shooting a basketball, designing a computer, running a company, serving in political office, or any number of great things. A society that works for everyone is one that allows all people to reach their potential in whatever way they want/have the ability to pursue it. In order to maximize “ability utility” for all people, we need to provide social and cultural factors conducive to achieving that success. Lebron James was a recipient of very fortunate social factors, and now looks to provide others the same. All of us who are wealthy, educated, and privileged in whatever ways have a moral duty to recognize our good fortune and look to give others the same opportunities.
Badenhauser, K. (2018). How Lebron James Built A Net Worth Of $450 Million. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kurtbadenhausen/2018/11/20/how-lebron-james-built-a-net-worth-of-450-million/#11a45b116cfa
Cohen, T. (2013). Obama: ‘Trayvon Martin Could Have Been Me”. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2013/07/19/politics/obama-zimmerman/index.html
Ellis, C. (2009). Growing Up Without Father: The Effects on African American Boys. University of Wisconsin. Retrieved from https://minds.wisconsin.edu/bitstream/handle/1793/38560/EllisCory.pdf?sequence=4&isAllowed=y
Fryer, R. (2018). Reconciling Results on Racial Differences in Police Shootings. Papers and Proceedings. Retrieved from https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/fryer/files/fryer_police_aer.pdf
Gramlich, J. (2019). The gap between the number of whites and blacks in prison is shrinking. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/30/shrinking-gap-between-number-of-blacks-and-whites-in-prison/
Kenyon. (n.d.). History of Black Education. https://www2.kenyon.edu/Depts/Amerstud/blackhistoryatkenyon/Individual%20Pages/History%20of%20Black%20Education.htm
Rosenberg, A., Groves, A. K., & Blankenship, K. M. (2016). Comparing Black and White Drug Offenders: Implications for Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice and Reentry Policy and Programming. Journal of drug issues, 47(1), 132–142. doi:10.1177/0022042616678614
Saslow, E. (2013). Lost Stories of Lebron. ESPN. Retrieved from http://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/9825052/how-lebron-james-life-changed-fourth-grade-espn-magazine
University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. (2017). Transcripts Of Calls In The George Zimmerman Case. Retrieved from http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/PROJECTS/FTRIALS/zimmerman1/zimcalls.html
Zagoria, A. (2019). Without Lebron James In The NBA Playoffs, TV Ratings Expected To Take A Hit. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/adamzagoria/2019/03/06/without-lebron-james-in-the-nba-playoffs-tv-ratings-expected-to-take-a-hit/#30cb0adb78f6