For LeBron James, the fundamental difference between the NBA and the NFL is the level of respect shown to players by the respective leagues and their team owners. The Lakers forward, who in recent years has become an increasingly outspoken advocate for professional athletes on matters of race and politics, took the NFL and its owners to task on the latest episode of “The Shop,” which aired Friday on HBO.
“In the NFL they got a bunch of old white men owning teams and they got that slave mentality," James said. “And it’s like, ‘This is my team. You do what the f--- I tell y’all to do. Or we get rid of y’all.’ ”
James, a four-time NBA MVP, made the comments in an extended conversation with his business partner Maverick Carter, Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley, and the actor/rapper Ice Cube.
“I’m so appreciative in our league of our commissioner [Adam Silver],” James continued. “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 NBA and the NFL have had strikingly different approaches to player activism. In the NBA, James and others have worn T-shirts during warm-ups in recognition of victims of police violence with no repercussions from the league.
By contrast, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick set off years of controversy and debate when he knelt during the national anthem as a means to protest racial injustice. The NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell responded by instituting strict guidelines for player conduct during the anthem. Kaepernick, who has not appeared in an NFL game since the 2016 season, ultimately filed a grievance against the league’s owners, alleging they colluded to keep him sidelined as a response to his protest.
The NFL and its owners have faced “slave” comparisons numerous times over the past decade. In 2011, then-Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson said that the league’s labor situation was like “modern-day slavery.”
During a 2017 owners meeting in the wake of Kaepernick’s protest, then-Houston Texans owner Bob McNair reportedly told his fellow owners that, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” Former Texans wide receiver Cecil Shorts replied: “Inmates, slaves and products. That’s all we are to the owners and others.”
Over the summer, San Francisco defensive back Richard Sherman accused Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones of possessing “the old plantation mentality” for requiring his players to stand at attention during the national anthem.
As Friday’s conversation on “The Shop” continued, James noted the central role that NBA and NFL players have held in growing their respective sports and suggested that NFL owners prioritize short-term results over the long-term success of individual players.
“The players are who make the ship go,” he said. “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.”
James stressed that he and other NBA players have still encountered resistance, even though they’ve been careful to take a non-violent approach to their activism.
“I am very educated about what I believe in and I’m not doing it in a violent way,” James said. “I’m not knocking on your door saying, ‘Listen, I’m kneeling today and if you don’t kneel with me, I’ll knock you the f-- out.’ But you know people go crazy when things are done outside the box. People don’t know how to react.”
Set in a barbershop, “The Shop” is a 30-minute conversational show. James and Carter are executive producers of the show, which is a collaboration between HBO and James’s “Uninterrupted” media company.