Why Do They Hate LeBron So?

Miami's flop in the NBA Finals was reason for many to celebrate. But the venom toward basketball's most hated star also reflects the uneasy ties between white fans and black athletes.

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From the moment he announced "the Decision" to take his talents to South Beach on July 8, 2010, LeBron James became a target of virulent condemnation in the sports world. Miami's stunning six-game loss to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals only solidified the 26-year-old's status as the most hated player in basketball, and he faces an uphill battle to regain any measure of redemption.  

On a stage as dramatic as sports and in a game that is such a part of the American social fabric, James was transformed from golden boy to traitor overnight, an anti-hero of the worst kind. If this was an epic play scripted for a heroic finish, "King James" was relegated to playing the villain.

What a change in the story line! The tale of LeBron James began so beautifully. The story was filled with nostalgic expectations of Jordan-like greatness and Magic Johnson congeniality. But now the script seems fated for an ugly ending.

For James, the decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat didn't just rub people the wrong way; it gave birth to a public backlash fueled by the kind of venom and hatred usually reserved for the worst of the worst. Resentment was shrill and immediate, especially in Cleveland, where fans took to the streets and burned his No. 23 Cavs jersey in protest. The images -- stark and disturbing -- painted James as some sort of national desperado or, worse, a brutal dictator who had fled a Third World country in turmoil.

In the days that followed, it was reported that members of James' family had received violent threats and that his Ohio residence had to be guarded by police for fear of vandalism or attack. Yet this hateful reaction, while more vehement in Cleveland, didn't just end there. It spread throughout the country and continued through the year. In Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and New Jersey -- all cited as possible destinations for James during the free-agency period -- fans and the national media joined in on the LeBron James denunciations, taking their shots on social media, in newspapers and wherever a camera was present.

In nearly every city James traveled to, he was met with the utmost contempt. On Feb. 11 a Detroit Pistons fan verbally assaulted James during the game by shouting obscene comments about his mother in front of his two young sons, who were seated at courtside.

The sense of disappointment in James' hometown of Cleveland is somewhat understandable, but why has there been such enduring public hatred of James across America? 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. On the night Dallas won the NBA title, CNBC Sports Business Reporter Darren Rovell reported a Twitter poll that ranked James as the "most disliked athlete ever" just behind Barry Bonds, and ahead of O.J. Simpson and Alex Rodriguez.

Making Rovell's list along with two convicted felons and an admitted steroid user may come as a surprise to some, but the national bitterness toward James speaks to a critical social issue that has plagued sports for centuries: the uneasy relationship between black athletes and white fans.

Throughout American history, the black male athlete has often been either the greatest story ever told or the quintessential tragedy. Constantly built up by the public and media for his ability to entertain and fulfill our wildest dreams, he is torn down and ostracized when he fails to deliver the goods. He is forced to exist between two extremes: love and hate.

James isn't the first professional athlete to leave the city that drafted him and play for another. NFL quarterbacks John Elway and Eli Manning famously refused to play for the franchises that drafted them -- acts arguably more insolent than James' opting to play elsewhere after fulfilling the seven years of his contract. Brett Favre, another former NFL quarterback, kept several teams hostage for a 2½-year period over whether or not he was going to play or retire, a divalike performance that was probably the most blatant act of selfishness by a known athlete in quite some time.