This week LeBron James criticized Knicks president Phil Jackson for using the word “posse” to describe James’ business partners. I understand LeBron was trying to shed light on divisive language in a divisive time, but I can’t help but wonder if his reaction widened the gap.
So, I never knew “posse” to be a racially charged word. The majority of my friends hadn’t either, but I confess the majority of my friends are white.
My nonwhite friends were generally more aware of the term’s loaded nature, but certainly not to the point where they thought it was common knowledge.
On Tuesday, however, LeBron James called attention to “posse” in a way only a king could, slamming New York Knicks president Phil Jackson for using it to describe James’ business partners. And though I understand LeBron was trying to shed light on divisive language in a divisive time, I can’t help but wonder if his reaction only widened the gap.
This was a consummate example of a potentially constructive conversation turning into an accusatory one. And it speaks to a culture in which the fear of making a verbal mistake is consistently thwarting dialogue.
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LeBron is my favorite athlete in the world, and one of the more admirable off-the-court role models. In this case, though, I think he crossed the line.
In an interview with ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, Jackson responded to a question about James’ 2014 departure from Miami and what it meant for Heat president Pat Riley.
Said the 11-time NBA champion coach: “It had to hurt when they lost LeBron. That was definitely a slap in the face. But there were a lot of little things that came out of that. When LeBron was playing with the Heat, they went to Cleveland, and he wanted to spend the night. They don’t do overnights. Teams just don’t. So now (coach Erik) Spoelstra has to text Riley and say, ‘What do I do in this situation?’ And Pat, who has iron-fist rules, answers, ‘You are on the plane. You are with this team.’ You can’t hold up the whole team because you and your mom and your posse want to spend an extra night in Cleveland.”
On Monday, one of James’ business associates, Maverick Carter, took issue with Jackson, telling ESPN it would have been fine if Phil had said “business partners” or “friends” instead of posse, but “because you’re young and black, he can use that word.”
James weighed in a day later, saying he believes “the only reason he used that word is because he sees young African-Americans trying to make a difference.” He went a step further later in the news conference, saying if Jackson could use that word in the media, “you can only imagine what he says when the camera is not on him.”
I don’t know, but that seems like a Saturn-sized implication to me. To accuse someone such as Phil Jackson — the counterculture Zen Master revered by some of the most notable black athletes in the world — as someone who’d drop offensive epithets behind closed doors seems downright reckless.
But I also left open the possibility I was being naive, so I asked some Seahawks players who are black about Jackson’s language. The responses ran the spectrum.
Defensive end Cliff Avril: “That was racist as (expletive). You’re insinuating something when you say something like (posse). I don’t think you respect him as a person or a businessman, either.”
Linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis: “Honestly, I would be OK with posse, but I guess it depends on where it came from. If Donald Trump said it, it would be one thing. But Phil has never really had any real issues with that to my knowledge. Look who he’s coached.”
Cornerback Richard Sherman: “I don’t really see it as a racial thing. … If you say everything is racist, then nothing is racist.”
I tend to agree with Sherman. I also feel for Jackson if he truly didn’t mean anything by it. For all I know, I’ve said the word “posse” without thinking twice, and as someone who was unaware of the connotation, I imagined myself in Phil’s shoes.
Actually, come to think of it, I’ve been there.
The day after this most recent Super Bowl, I penned a column saying the timing of Marshawn Lynch’s retirement announcement “wasn’t classy.” I expected blowback for the piece, but I didn’t foresee a small contingent of readers calling me straight-up racist.
They said “classy” had an undertone to it, and accused me of bigotry on social media. And trust me, when total strangers are that condemning, the natural human response isn’t “thanks for your input, I’ll take that into account next time.” The natural human response is to become instantly defensive.
If someone would have respectfully pointed out that “classy” could be perceived as loaded, I would have listened and embraced a conversation about it.
But when reaction to speech or opinion is unfairly accusatory, it’s just going to build resentment and increase the divide.
Sensitivity in language has its place, but it can’t have people walking on eggshells. And if you don’t think Trump’s victory was — at least, in part — a backlash to today’s PC culture, you need to remove the blinders pronto.
Oh, and just in case you’re wondering — I’m the furthest thing from a Trump supporter. I also have written a piece that praised Colin Kaepernick’s dissent, another that chastised the NBA’s all-too-light response to Rajon Rondo’s use of a homophobic slur, and another that begrudged the lack of female coaches in men’s sports. Prejudice pervades this country — sometimes in a horrifying manner. But if we cry bigotry where it doesn’t exist, true bigots can hide in plain sight.
I also know that as a white male, my perspective has severe limitations. I could put myself in Jackson’s shoes, yes, but never in LeBron’s. On Wednesday, a black friend of mine agreed James’ reaction was a little-thin skinned, but upon further reflection, he empathized with how James responded the way he did.
The truth is, it’s a tense time in our country. People are nervous, and people of color are terrified. So while I think James went overboard, I also think Jackson has a responsibility to clarify his comments. But based on the hard lines people take these days, I doubt that’s going to happen.
A couple of months ago, I was talking to Seahawks kicker Stephen Hauschka about Dr. Harry Edwards, the sociologist who helped to inspire the Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympics. According to Hauschka, one point Edwards emphasized when he visited the Seahawks was that everybody — black, white, blue and red — give each other “slack” when discussing social issues.
It was a simple directive, but almost sad that it had to be given. Unfortunately, “slack” is a dying entity in today’s political climate.
Constructive communication is as important as ever now. There’s a chasm polarizing the nation a little more every day.
If unity is the goal, words will be the chief instrument in reaching it. But for words to be effective, people can’t be scared to use them.