BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF
If you follow sports even a little bit, you’re probably already well aware that LeBron James recently made the decision to return home to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. But whether you follow sports at all, you probably at least know who LeBron James is, and, more importantly, that there a lot of people out there who hate him.
More than ten years into his career, the hatred that many have for LeBron James burns with a strange impasse; he’s not a universally hated athlete, but the hate that he has received overtime has been more vitriolic and impassioned than most.
The exact reason James attracts all this hate is hard to pin down. Some seem to hate him just because they do. A couple years ago, Andrew Unterberger at theScore wrote, “Trying to defend my hate of LeBron James and base it in some kind of moral objectivity is ultimately as purposeless as defending my love of Kobe Bryant. Even as I argue it, I can hear myself arguing the obvious points against it, and they’re all more valid than the points I’m making. Mostly, I just hate LeBron James because I hate LeBron James. I hate his stupid face. I hate his State Farm commercials. I hate his chest-puffing peacock strut after getting the whistle on an and-one.”
This year, Mark Kiszla at the The Denver Post managed to awkwardly tie his hatred of James into timely fears about how the Internet and the young people who use it are basically ruining everything. Kiszla ranted, “While the world of social media spins out of control 24/7, one truth regarding sports remains the same, forever and always: It's all about the scoreboard, baby. When that ceases to be the case, we might as well be watching Miley Cyrus twerk.”
But more than anything else, the hatred for LeBron James comes down to one word: ego.
Post-Decision, James became something bigger than a basketball player. He became the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with sports—of the divide between athletes and fans, and of a system where money, fame, and power are more important than loyalty, honor, and respect. As Will Leitch at New York Magazine put it in a piece called “What’s the Point of Hating LeBron?”:
It was the universal sports fan emotion. The LeBron hatred stunned him and actually frightened the rest of the league; Carmelo Anthony told me in an interview shortly after he came to the Knicks that “no one wants [what happened to LeBron] to happen to you. It’s scary.” It was the biggest sports turnaround this side of Tiger Woods: To go from perfect to despised with a passion, like that.
Ironically, Leitch Leitch himself wrote what was essentially a eulogy for sports itself after that fateful 2010 night, when it was first revealed that James would be leaving Cleveland, which was as much or more damning as any of the hate discussed in the piece above.
That trust felt broken tonight. Not because LeBron James went to the Heat, even though he referred to his destination as 'South Beach,' not 'the Miami Heat and their fans.' Not because LeBron James didn't go to the Knicks, even though of all the cities he mentioned enjoying during this free agent 'courtship,' New York was the one he omitted. Not even because LeBron was so, so cruel to Cleveland, not once thanking the fans who made him into what he was, the fans who have to wonder if their absurd investment in their sports franchises will ever be rewarded. No, tonight, it felt like everyone involved—LeBron, ESPN, Bing, the University of Phoenix, Stuart Scott, the man who once chastised fans for having the audacity to boo, Jim freaking Gray — treated the millions of people watching like stupid, mindless consumers, empty lemmings ready to follow Sport into the abyss. Here, here are the Boys & Girls Club props. Here, here is your search engine. Here, here is your online college, Here, here is your Athletic Hero. Eat. Eat. Consume. You like it. You love it. You'll always come back for more.
And yet, this narrative doesn’t feel quite right. Even with all the attention surrounding the decision and the ensuing circus that followed it, any rational person knows there’s a lot more that’s wrong with professional athletics than LeBron James. Nevertheless, everyone from flip-flopping sports writers like Leitch to the good folks at Psychology Today have at one point or another been content to blame it all on him. We are talking about a guy who’s so hated that someone actually wrote a book about how much they hate him, after all.
Basically, the LeBron James hatred is a three-pronged issue: He’s black, he’s great, and he knows it. Two of these things together, and people might only dislike him—or not have any strong feelings about him at all other than (deserved) respect. But put the three of them together, and you create a dangerous concoction, which, sadly, brings out the worst in people.
After the decision, it was impossible to deny that LeBron James could be ostentatious and obnoxious. But perhaps an even better testament to James’ capacity for self-aggrandizement was his "What Should I Do?" Nike spot. Besides being a pretty genius ad campaign which spawned some equally great tribute, response, and parody clips, the “What Should I Do?” commercial cemented in many people’s minds the idea that James was altogether too self-aware of how talented he was, and too cocky to care if everyone knew it. It was, if anything, a rebuke or his critics that also played directly into their hand. Here was a guy who ultimately didn’t care how you felt about him.
On the other hand, people only paid this much attention to James because he could back that attitude up. If he was merely an adequate player, no one would care about what he did. But LeBron James is not merely an adequate player, he’s a great one. In 2012, Monte Burke at Forbes went so far as to posit, “He is the best player in the league and rightly just won his third MVP Award. He fills arenas with paying customers. He puts eyeballs on ESPN. He sells shoes for Nike. He may be underpaid.”
But that’s not what we want to hear. We want our pop culture icons humble. We want them to apologize for how much money they make, in an effort to pander to us, the “little people.”
The hatred for LeBron James is a sort of like the hatred for Gwyneth Paltrow in this regard, an actress who has said some truly irritating things. Her “I can’t pretend to be somebody who makes $25,000 a year” comment is at least, if not more piercingly arrogant than when James’ brushed off his haters by declaring, “At the end of the day, they gotta wake up tomorrow and have the same life they had before they woke up today.”
But the only reason we’re paying attention to either of them is because they’re so successful. If Paltrow wasn’t a skilled actress and businesswoman, we wouldn’t care about how much she made, no more than we would care about how much James made if he wasn’t the greatest basketball player in the world.
Of course, part of the issue with Paltrow comes down to overt sexism, whereas with James, it obviously has something to do with race. Another celebrity who’s worth looking at through this lens is Kanye West. West has been a legitimately despicable individual at times, but behind all his rage, all his shouting, we’re still afraid to admit the possibility that he might be right. West’s exclusion from the world of high fashion, and from other realms where he wants to be taken seriously, is especially significant given his skin color. Just look at the evidence. The fields he’s trying to break into are mostly white, but we’d rather see him as a rapper, because that’s how we’re comfortable seeing black people.
BuzzFeed’s Heben Nigatu talked about the importance of Kanye West’s unwillingness to underrate himself in an essay called, "In Defense Of Kanye's Vanity: The Politics Of Black Self Love." Nigatu wrote, “This isn’t about ego; this is about boldly asserting yourself in a world that is not meant for you. This is a vanity that is rooted in bringing the community up with you… The joke’s on you, white America. We made it, and we don’t even have the decency to be grateful. We’re laughing. We dare to laugh.”
Where LeBron James transcends Kanye West on this point is that sports are more about cold, hard facts than art is. It makes sense for people to have varied opinions on West’s music, because that’s the essence of music. But sports revolves around numbers, and according to the numbers, James is a great basketball player, plain and simple. Why should he back down from that? Why shouldn’t he laugh at his haters?
The suggestion that James should just “shut up” and play the game is where the real problem starts to arise. Because when white America wants their black idols to stay humble, things get complicated.
In exploring James’ career for The Root, Jean McGianni Celestin discovered a few discrepancies amongst his fandom. He observes, “On Oct. 20, 2010, ESPN ran a national poll to gauge the popularity of the basketball mega-star, and the results revealed an astounding polarization of black and white voters: 65 percent of black sports fans viewed James favorably, compared with only 32 percent of white fans.”
This evidence led Celestin to conclude that, “Like so many others in history—notably Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, and a man once regarded as "the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth" because of his unyielding confidence in the presence of whites; and boxing legend Muhammad Ali, reviled for most of his career—James now represents the uncontrollable black male.”
With black celebrities in particular, our desire for possession as a culture is inherently disturbing. We are able to appreciate them, to rely on them, but we’re not necessarily able to separate that from the belief that they work for us. Consider, there’s a scene in the 2004 film version of Friday Night Lights where a group of white people from the community are having dinner. They start to espouse the virtues of one of their quarterbacks, all while calling him a “nigger” in the same conversation.
On the other side of the coin, if white America feels like we can’t control someone, if they’re operating contrary to the narrative we see them in, we get mad. Dave Chappelle did a great segment on his show a few years ago about how if black people are having too much fun, white people will come in and scoop them up. This comes down to more than appropriation. It’s a sense of entitlement, of ownership. This is also why Chappelle left his show: he didn’t like the idea of white America owning his creation, of seeing it distilled and mass produced in a way that violated everything he stood for.
The really sad part of this, where LeBron James is concerned, is that now white people appear willing to take him back, because his move to Cleveland is being seen as some kind of penance. The message is clear. James is tired of being yelled at, he’s tired of that hate, and he’s decided to tone down the flash. Deadspin’s Drew Magary commented on the flimsiness of this shifting story last week.
Four years ago, LeBron blew town for less money so that he could play with his friends and win some championships, which was totally reasonable, but because he announced this on a TV special that looked like a live broadcast of a hostage crisis, he was filleted up and down the sports pages. Shit, I called LeBron a cocksucker at the time… And now it's happening again, only as if in a photographic negative. If you cast aside all the 'I'm coming home' shit, what you have is a story of the NBA's best player ditching a loyal group of aging teammates for a bigger salary and a franchise with better and younger talent and more maneuverability under the salary cap. From a basketball perspective, it was a cold decision—a smart call, and one that LeBron has every right to make… LeBron sold himself better this time, though. The optics were good. He put on a great show, the drama critics all agreed.
We shouldn’t care that James has decided to come home and be the prodigal son. We shouldn’t care whether he repents and makes good on some kind of made up promise of quiet greatness in favor of chest-pounding flare. But we do, and as white Americans, that puts the fault in this narrative on us, not on LeBron James.
Just because this is 2014, it should probably be at least be mentioned that a small element of the hate directed at James has less to do with anything specific and more to do with the general kind of hate that the Internet, unfortunately, has a tendency to amplify. Tim Adams of The Guardian, for one, suggests that if you, “Do a quick trawl on the blog sites and comment sections about most celebrities and entertainers—not to mention politicians—and you will quickly discover comparable virtual rage and fantasised violence.”
Indeed, it is possible that if James ascendancy had not happened at this time in history, the hate hurled towards him might not feel so vitriolic. Complex actually ranked fellow basketball legends The Fab Five, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Gary Payton, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and finally, Larry Bird, all ahead of James on their "50 Cockiest Athletes of All Time" list. Then again, that all these players with the exception of Bird are black reveals an undeniable truth. The sentiment that LeBron James is a cocky, ungrateful bastard runs a lot deeper than the Internet.
While delving into both sides of the LeBron James argument, chiefly in how they manifest themselves on the Internet, Andrew Sharp at Grantland characterized a kind of stalemate that’s occurred.
Now we have a new, weirder dynamic. On one hand, nobody who’s serious about the NBA wonders about LeBron’s greatness anymore. He has no credible critics. Save for one or two outliers, mainstream writers are as universally reverential of LeBron in defeat as they are of the Spurs in victory.
On the other hand, if you think LeBron hate doesn’t exist anymore, all you have to do is scroll to the bottom of almost any Heat article on the Internet, and you’ll find scores of people in the comments section scolding him for not being Michael Jordan. Or being too selfish. Or being too passive. Or … I was on Facebook after Game 5, and someone I knew in college wrote a long screed saying that LeBron isn’t a true leader because he didn’t keep playing until the end during that blowout loss Sunday. It was incredible. It’s all incredible.
So what should LeBron James do? He can’t be Michael Jordan. He can’t help it if people think he’s “selfish.” He’s black, he’s great, and he knows it, but is the only solution really to temper that? To cotow to those who would tell him to just “shut up” and play the game?
The answer is that it doesn’t matter what LeBron James does. LeBron James should be able to do whatever he wants to at this point in his career, and that’s that. Because at the end of the day, he’s right. We have to wake up tomorrow and live with ourselves. We have to wake up and lead the same life we led the day before.
Not LeBron James though. LeBron James gets to wake up and keep being the greatest basketball player in the world.
Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University's Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.