Some professional athletes maintain ties with their working-class roots
By Phil Gillen
For the most part, our society is divided into two camps: the haves, and the have-nots. When it comes to the luxuries that money can buy — big houses, expensive cars, the ability to travel, fancy clothes — the have-nots are mostly synonymous for the working class, our class, the basis for the most meaningful political work. Being a member of the working class doesn’t just mean you have little money, it means that you must work to live, that the labor you sell is the only source of wealth you have, and by selling it, you are exploited daily. For the most part, we can only sell it for a low price, the only price the ruling class, the bourgeoisie, are willing to pay.
In this funny old world of ours, however, there’s one industry in which the workers are paid a staggering amount compared to the rest of us. Something about our period, whether the increased dependence on media, the profound social alienation that makes powerful avatars so attractive, or the sacking of public spaces and public institutions, has made professional sports a hyper-visible, and hyper-capitalized industry. The workers at the center of this industry often make headlines with their high salaries, and receive celebrity status.
The fact remains: they are workers by any standard. They are paid for the work they do, the shift they put in on the practice ground and in the stadium. And few workplaces make the physical requirements that the sports industry does of its players: week in and week out, season after season, total physical dedication to activities that will most likely cause several serious injuries over the course of a career, if not one ultimately debilitating injury. In the case of the NFL, rampant concussions due to poor safety standards have caused an epidemic of brain and associated mental injuries accompanied by suicides (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative brain disease, was found in 99 percent of the deceased NFL players’ brains that had been donated to science as of last year).
For many of the kids from poor and working-class backgrounds who see sports as a way to material security, they won’t even make it that far. Vampiric amateur sporting associations, like the NCAA and their member schools and conferences, make it their sole business to ensure that nobody but them can touch the millions of dollars of profits generated by the young players in their leagues.
God forbid a teenager get a free tattoo, but the lucrative television contracts, advertising, and licensing money will find its way into the pockets of the same people it always does: the bourgeoisie. Without material compensation, amateur sportsmen are still putting their bodies on the line, and many will suffer career-ending or even life-altering injuries while their efforts are exploited for profit by their supposed caretakers. They won’t even have a chance to get that pro-sports payday and brain disease, even if they had the promise.
Those that do will attain salaries that make our eyebrows rise, but their salaries, high as they are, would absolutely not be paid if their bosses, the team owners, did not get every dollar back with change. What an array of team owners we have. They are so often the worst of the bourgeoisie — the most repellent, often racist and sexist, the most uncaring, both about their players and their own teams’ success, the most self-serving. And they will make obscene amounts of money even as they pay their players what would be fortunes to us.
It does happen that a few of the few who attain that professional sports contract will use their salaries to invest in capital, buy businesses, take on employees of their own and exploit them in turn, becoming members of the bourgeoisie. Such is the case often with the highest-profile and best-paid athletes. Their class interests change, and they no longer represent us, the working class.
But for many, some working-class consciousness remains even when the checks come in. For many, the experience of working in such an exploited way for their whole lives, of dedicating everything to this pursuit and being profited off of at every turn, is not lost on them. Many of these players are black, and the class nature of racism makes itself felt at every turn, especially in pro sports. The consciousness of these players, the people they represent, although they might drive a fancier model car, are not so different than our own.
There is no better example than LeBron James. LeBron is the single most prominent American sports figure of our generation. His sporting career is one of the most precocious and consistent of all time. He was drafted as an NBA athlete out of high school, and has played at that level for the last 15 years, with few signs of slowing down, and rarely not the best player in the league. And while his compensation has followed suit, with innumerable endorsement deals and media deals, he has somehow remained in touch with his working-class roots. He has consistently taken controversial stances instead of staying quiet to maintain brand integrity as some of his peers do, against racial oppression and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
After his home was vandalized with a racist message, he stated:
“No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough. We’ve got a long way to go for us as a society, and for us as African-Americans, until we feel equal in America.” He also made statements against the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last year that ended in death.
Perhaps the most laudable thing he has done was accomplished in the last two months — LeBron opened a public elementary school, I Promise School, established through his foundation in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. The material impact of the school, aimed at at-risk children and providing guaranteed tuition to Akron University upon graduation (among other things) cannot truly be overstated.
“I’ve walked the same streets [as the children], 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?” he said about the project.
While it may be an oversimplification to say that LeBron James is a member of the working-class, it is clear that to a very real extent he is still connected to and supportive in the struggle of working-class people, particularly of black working-class people and of those in his hometown. LeBron is an example of the truth that class prejudice, and class solidarity, isn’t bound so tightly by salary numbers or industry.
If he’s not a working-class millionaire, he’s probably the closest thing to it that we have, and an ally where they often seem scarce.