The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the nation’s foremost professional race-card player, said billionaire sports franchise owner Dan Gilbert was treating mere multi-multimillionaire LeBron James like “a runaway slave.”

Jackson was responding to an angry letter Gilbert released to the public, specifically addressed to Cleveland Cavaliers fans, in the wake of James’s announcement that he would leave Gilbert’s NBA team to sign with the Miami Heat, and to Gilbert’s later statements to the Associated Press.

In a press release from his Rainbow/PUSH organization, Jackson said of Gilbert, “He speaks as an owner of LeBron and not the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. His feelings of betrayal personify a slave master mentality. He sees LeBron as a runaway slave. This is an owner employee relationship—between business partners—and LeBron honored his contract.”

The absurdity of such language ought to be obvious, as is the obvious irony (and disgrace) of a Christian minister using incendiary language to criticize someone for . . . using incendiary language.

Also disgraceful is Jackson’s imputation of race-based motives to a person who has far more obvious reasons to be angry at the object of his screed: money, and lots of it, plus extremely hurt feelings over the sense that James betrayed his community by accepting their affection over the years and then casting it aside when he saw a better opportunity.

James surely has the right to go anywhere he wants after having fulfilled his contractual obligations to the Cleveland Cavaliers. However, a mature, decent, and sensible person (even at age 24) would consider the likely feelings of his admirers, who would be left adrift if he took his services elsewhere, and he would feel at least some small amount of sympathy and concern for them. Possession of the slightest amount of fellow feeling for others would engender a respectful concern for them, which a person of good character would openly acknowledge by expressing some small sense of remorse or dismay at the need to part.

To act otherwise is to indicate oneself as an utter narcissist.

Instead, having accepted their adulation, James cast his lovers aside when a prettier gal came along. That’s his right, and he should surely do what he perceives to be best for himself (although I think any Christian or otherwise socially concerned person would also consider what’s good for others). But to create a media circus and indulge in an hour-long special focusing strictly on his own concerns—the inner thoughts of a shallow, youthful multimillionare—surely was an insult to all of his admirers. He refused to spare even a small moment to acknowledge their feelings.

Gilbert had every right to react to such an insult, on behalf of LeBron’s fans. Of course, Gilbert also had pecuniary motives, and those may well have been paramount in his decision process. Moreover, the really important issue here is not loyalty, as Gilbert saw it, but sympathy for others and a concern for their well-being. Nonetheless, there is no reason whatsoever to imagine that Gilbert ever thought he “owned” James in any way. Jackson’s statement injects race into a subject where it does not belong—which has been his profession for decades.

The greater irony and damage to the public discourse lies in Jackson’s failure to see the moral complexity of this issue, and in particular a Christian minister giving James a free pass over the basketball superhero’s contemptuous disregard of his admirer’s feelings. James’s behavior toward the Cleveland fans was certainly un-Christian, and that is something a Christian minister should be quick to rebuke.

Jackson, however, is a race-baiter first and a minister a distant ninth or tenth, and hence he ignored the moral failings of James (a black man) and expressed anger only about those of Gilbert (a white man), injecting race and justice issues into a matter that was really about people’s lack of sympathy for one another. Jackson may be willing to ignore the moral failings of one person in order to suggest that racism still is the primary motive for all actions by white people in the United States, but the public is well aware of Jackson’s own motivations: money and power. They will dismiss this latest broadside, as they should.

Gilbert’s punishment for his intemperate words is the loss of his superstar cash cow. James’s will be the tarnishing of his halo as he becomes just another selfish superrich professional athlete. And Jackson’s punishment is the worst of all: having to look at himself in the mirror every morning.

—S. T. Karnick