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.
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.
Yet for Elway, Manning and Favre -- all of whom are white -- the rules seem to have been different. There was little impact on their popularity, at least in comparison with James. In fact, Elway's and Manning's actions were viewed as shrewd "business moves" or "personal decisions," while James' (as a "free agent") were depicted as an act of betrayal.
As a result, James is now viewed as the ultimate megalomaniac, ungrateful for the adoration of his fans -- a notion adamantly illustrated during CNN's coverage of the reaction to the decision, when a white male fan declared, "He is dead to me," moments after the burning of James' jersey.
This sort of vindictive criticism of James, echoed in large part by Cleveland Cavalier owner Dan Gilbert, was what the Rev. Jesse Jackson confronted in a press release on July 11, 2010, when he claimed that James was being treated like a "runaway slave." Jackson was alluding to the double standard and long-standing paternalistic relationship that white fans have had with black male athletes since competitive sports came into existence.
Much of the hatred that James has suffered, while self-inflicted at times, doesn't have as much to do with his recent lackluster performance as with the audacity he displayed by making such an important decision on his own terms. When he rewrote the script that had been prescribed for him by signing with the Heat, he almost certainly sealed his fate as the hated scoundrel of a sports world obsessed with constructing an acquiescent black male athlete.
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.
He has become what Tom Burrell describes in his book, Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, as the "Badass Negro," one who refuses to follow the rules and who fights back against criticism. James is quickly becoming this kind of black American tragedy: unwilling and, perhaps, unable to fit into the structured vernacular of the white American sports imagination.
There are stories of athletes who have fallen from grace, only to find redemption in their final act on the sports stage. But for LeBron James, the negative public perception that he has endured is part of a greater historical inheritance. He is more likely to overcome it by showing his willingness to play the docile and grateful black athlete than by finally winning the Larry O'Brien Trophy for the NBA's best team.
Jean McGianni Celestin is a New York-based writer who writes about race, sports and politics.