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Who owns J.R. Smith’s skin?

He backed down on wearing ‘Supreme’ tattoo, so real issue is about money, not black emancipation

Right pew. Wrong church.

That was my reaction to J.R. Smith earlier this week when the NBA reminded the Cleveland Cavaliers guard that the league more or less owned his body.

Smith turned his body into a billboard last August when he tattooed the logo of an apparel company, Supreme, on the back of his right leg.

Earlier this week, the NBA invoked a clause in the collective bargaining agreement with the players association and told Smith to cover up the tattoo or risk a daily fine.

Smith, via social media, was indignant. It was his body, after all. A flurry of supporters invoked the plantation metaphor, casting Smith and his fellow players as field hands and NBA owners as the plantation bosses.

That may be true, but as the NBA reminded Smith — the players agreed to this, so cover up or be fined.

In an email message, Michelle Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), said, “There is a rule enforceable as per the CBA that prohibits exhibiting trademarks during games — whether on your body or otherwise.” She added: “J.R. does not intend to fight the league on this issue.”

Each of us willingly gives up a piece of autonomy when we join a corporation. That’s the price of the ticket, and most of us are cool with it. Rahsaan Roland Kirk called it “Volunteered Slavery.”

By Tuesday the battle was over. Smith had surrendered. He told reporters before the Cavaliers played in Boston that the fight wasn’t worth the cash he’d lose. Invoking a variation of the Latrell Sprewell lament — “I’ve got to feed my family” — Smith told ESPN that he wasn’t going to give the NBA money “that could go to my kids.”

Smith said he received a text from the players association telling him that he didn’t have a leg to stand on. “And you know what?” he said. “I’m not going to put money in their pockets. Not a chance.”

Smith insisted that he wasn’t on Supreme’s payroll. “It was just something that I wanted to do,” he said, wondering why the league, with all of its other issues, was concerned about a tattoo.

Well, this is the NBA’s primary issue: keeping track of its money, and the folks who help them make it.

The NBA sometimes seems like one of those polite cocktail parties where everybody pretends to be on the same side, where everyone is obsessed with being on the right side of history — in words, if not in deed.

The NBA recently announced a liberal sneaker policy that will allow players to wear any style they want. Then Kanye West comes out with a sneaker for players under contract with Adidas and the shoe is temporarily quashed because it has too much shine.

A few years ago, players were allowed to go off the NBA’s dress code grid and wear “I can’t breathe” T-shirts to acknowledge Eric Garner, whose death in police custody triggered a global firestorm. But unlike NFL players, who defied owners — and fans — by demonstrating during the national anthem, NBA players stayed inbounds: They never knelt, never raised fists, never tested the clause in their collective bargaining agreement that obligated them to stand at attention during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“It’s their league,” Smith said earlier this week, referring to the tattoo issue. “They can do what they want.”

The league has been tolerant of tattoos: tattoos celebrating loved ones, tattoos reciting Scripture, tattoos commemorating everything under the sun. A study completed five years ago found that 55 percent of NBA players wear at least one tattoo.

But a tattoo advertising a non-partner will not be overlooked.

It is “their” league and “they” can do what they want, although I’m sure commissioner Adam Silver would argue that the NBA is a partnership between league and players — until someone, or something, threatens the bottom line.

“It’s their league,” Smith said earlier this week, referring to the tattoo issue. “They can do what they want.”

Each of us willingly gives up a piece of autonomy when we join a corporation. That’s the price of the ticket, and most of us are cool with it. Rahsaan Roland Kirk called it “Volunteered Slavery.”

NBA players, as part of an industry that runs on flesh, give up a piece of their bodies in exchange for revenue sharing.

Nike is the NBA’s big dog, the official sponsor of NBA uniforms. Three years ago, Nike signed an eight-year deal with the NBA, reportedly worth approximately $1 billion.

I really don’t have an issue with the NBA fining Smith. The players agreed to this. What intrigued me about the skin episode was how Smith spoke about Supreme when he explained why he chose to give the company an unsolicited endorsement. He called the company “edgy” and referred to its connection with the street.

I hadn’t heard of Supreme before, and Smith’s comments led me to believe that Supreme might be a black-owned company. That would have made Supreme an outlier in the lucrative apparel industry.

This is a major issue within the sports industry and one that is not openly or frequently discussed: the vast disparity between black bodies on playing fields and courts and the black presence in the multibillion-dollar industries that surround those fields and courts.

I encourage players at the professional and collegiate levels to walk through their league offices, team offices or offices in the athletic department suites at their universities. Those who do are often stunned to discover that the black presence in these suites in no way resembles the black presence on the fields and courts on which they run and jump.

This is true of the stadiums and arenas with a vast array of duties and operations that create and promote events. Desegregating these industries is the new frontier of activism in sports. Success will require collective engagement and battles fought behind the scenes.

High-profile athletes like Smith have the leverage to change this dynamic by promoting black-owned firms and insisting that the array of firms with which they do business — their agents, law firms, real estate companies, apparel companies — hire African-Americans and do business with black vendors. This requires a new activism, one that takes place not on social media but behind the scenes, in corridors of power and influence where athletes can use their numbers to insist on inclusion off the playing fields.

In fact, Supreme is a white-owned corporation, founded in 1994 by James Jebbia. Supreme recently sold 50 percent of its shares to The Carlyle Group.

Self-sufficiency for African-Americans, especially those involved in the sprawling sports industry, continues to be the primary road to salvation. This is where I thought Smith was headed when he embraced Supreme.

While I appreciate his sense of resistance and his advocating for the underdog, I wished he would have been advocating for a black-owned underdog.

Right pew. Wrong church.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.