Reasonable People Disagree About LeBron James
Now that the dust has settled on the NBA finals, let’s set aside the question of whether Miami Heat superstar forward Lebron James is as good as Michael Jordan in favor of a different debate: Is all the hatred of James warranted? Senior Editor Cord Jefferson says James is a monster of our own making, but Senior Editorial Designer Dylan Lathrop doesn't let him off the hook so easily.
So Lebron Is Arrogant. That’s Our Fault As Much as His
by Cord Jefferson
I don’t even watch sports and I know how angry Americans are at basketball wunderkind LeBron James. How could anyone not know? It’s only been a week since the Miami Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA finals, and yet I feel like I’ve already heard a lifetime of tortured moaning about the 26-year-old Man Who Would Be Jordan. Just yesterday Miami Heat President Pat Riley said the team “made some mistakes” in handling James.
Twitter has become bloated with 140-character rants about James’ “arrogance,” which has been a groan-worthy topic at least since writers started asking years ago if James was “the most arrogant player in sports.” Wrote Drew Magary at Deadspin last week, “Everything that made him a complete cocksucker last summer is still there: the arrogance, the dismissiveness, the incredible lack of self-awareness.” Magary later added, “Not only is it okay to hate LeBron, but it's a fucking character flaw on your part if you do not.” There are now at least two Facebook pages devoted to talk about murdering LeBron James, including “JOIN IF YOU WANNA FUCKING KILL LEBRON JAMES.”
Maybe I’m a terrible person, but I don’t hate LeBron James. As I said before, save for an enthusiasm for World Cup soccer that comes every four years like a cicada swarm, I don’t give a lick about sports. As a kid I tried in earnest to get riled up about football and basketball on the weekends with my dad and brothers, but it always seemed like a waste of time, energy, and perfectly decent snacks. I am, however, fascinated by people’s obsession with sports, especially when that obsession turns ugly.
And wow, is the LeBron James obsession ugly. Not even Sarah Palin inspires the kinds of violent fantasies that play out in LeBron haters' minds. What’s most surprising to me about all the James rage is that it seems to ignore exactly how he came to be. It’s as if everyone has forgotten that, at the tender age of 14, he was told he was going to be a professional basketball player. That James’ mother was able to take out car loans based on her son’s potential earning power while he was still in high school. That journalists and advertisers dubbed him “King James,” and proclaimed him the heir apparent to Michael Jordan’s throne. That James was signing $90 million Nike deals while still a teenager. For added context, it’s probably best to remember that a person’s brain is still developing (PDF) well into his 20s. If you think LeBron James is an arrogant jerk, you’re probably not wrong, but then it’s not him you want to shoot; it’s Nike and the NBA, the people who were giving a boy tens of millions of dollars and literally calling him royalty.
Adding another layer to what I’ll call the “LeBron question” is the fact that I’m almost certain people want James to be arrogant. In many ways, the sports industry is like a big soap opera, a lucrative distraction that follows the highs and lows of melodramatic heroes and villains. If every athlete were a humble sweetheart, there would be no narrative to keep things interesting for fans looking for reasons to hate others’ teams and love their own. People want somebody to root against, and sports fans need LeBrons the way soap fans need a cruel stepmother or a charming but murderous playboy.
Come to think of it, LeBron James may inspire so much hatred because he’s so confusing for people: A horrible monster they created but now don’t want to get rid of.
Lebron Has No One to Blame But Himself. And We Can Go Ahead and Hate Him For It.
by Dylan Lathrop
Watching LeBron James tear away on a fast break dunk is awe-inspiring. It's one of those transcendent sports moments that makes a room quiet, forcing fans to rise slightly off their seat, hovering with a quiet tension that few plays in sports warrant. Then there comes that guttural release, often times coming out as a "HOLY SHIT!" or "THAT WAS BANANAS!" or "GOOD GRAVY!" as, airborne, he completes the dunk. This, as a sports fan, is what compels me to watch James; he possesses such unique skills that every moment feels historic. Sadly, his on-the-court talent fades from memory pretty quickly as soon as you read about his off the-court-behavior.
The way James handled his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers is felt in fandom to this day, but now the crosshairs are focused on his (lack of) effort in the recent six-game championship series against Dallas. These two points of reference are what allow the average sports fan to find James insufferable. His public demeanor leading up to, during, and after these events was insufferable. Plenty of athletes have held teams hostage to get what they want, but none went to quite the lengths James did in drawing it out for personal brand growth. Many athletes have come up short trying to win it all, but none of them stoked the fires quite like James, who predicted Miami would win the next eight championships--and preemptively claimed credit--before ever playing a game in his newly minted Heat jersey. And rarely has a player excused himself from his performance by putting it on god.
Athletes shouldn't be held to higher standards as human beings than anyone else, something I think fans and media forget all too often. That's why Charles Barkley's "I'm not a role model" video still feels fresh. We still try to put big stars into that box. But sports figures aren't playing to impart life lessons, they are playing to make money and win championships. And James is no different. He is, however, someone who hasn't lived up to that hype, self-assigned or otherwise. That's not on the media or fans, that's on him. He doesn't need to be a role model, he just doesn't need to be a dick.
His effortless rise from high school to the pros certainly contributed to his arrogance. James is the consummate heel who relishes knowing his talents can take him places no average person can go. When he makes excuses and points out that he still gets to be King James, he’s also giving fans permission to keep hating.
James is his own worst enemy. He just loves himself too much to see that.