LeBron James, sacrificial hero?

Poor LeBron James.  Fans curse his name and burn his jersey. His departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat is called a monstrous act of bad faith.  Some 80 days after the fact, Mr. James’ ignominy is unrelieved.  Indeed, it seems to grow (Doyle, 2010). 

Let’s be clear.  Mr. James has committed no crime.  He’s done nothing morally culpable.  There are athletes accused of using steroids, assaulting women in restaurant washrooms, of staging dog fights, but Mr. James is the one fans choose to hate.  As we learned last week, his Q rating is plummeting (Rovell, 2010).

Naturally, everyone expected some unhappiness when Mr. James left Cleveland.  No town wants to lose an athlete of his standing, especially a town that’s down on its luck.  But who expected this degree of rancor?  America is prepared to forgive celebrities just about anything, as the Charlie Sheen story perhaps attests.  And what doesn’t fall under “celebrity license,” normally gets washed away by our fast acting amnesia.

Not for Mr. James.  He’s on the verge of becoming the man fans love to hate.

Why?  Let’s try the transposition test and see.  Let’s suppose the CEO of Cleveland’s biggest employer suddenly up and took another job in Florida.  Not a murmur of unhappiness.  How about the Cleveland’s most beloved doctor?  Some unhappiness, no doubt, but nothing lasting.  I bet Cleveland’s favorite pastor could leave with only minor hue and cry.  Certainly, nothing like hatred.

Many athletes have left Cleveland, abandoning the Cavaliers, the Indians, or the Browns for a higher bidder.  This city is a revolving door when it comes to high-price talent.  This surprises no one.  We expect athletes to sell their talents on an open market.  It is precisely what we would do if we were 22 years old and mind-bogglingly good at one of the pursuits of our childhood. 

And then there’s the paradox of Fantasy League basketball, football and baseball.  I reckon many thousands of people living in Cleveland have joined these leagues and now sometimes root for Cleveland’s enemy (and perhaps even against Cleveland itself) to advance their standing. 

The question intensifies: Why so much animus for LeBron James?  Mr. James and others have wondered whether the answer might be racism.  And it might.  But I think there is a simpler reason.  The answer must have something to do with the fact that Mr. James a deeply local athlete.  He was born in Akron, 30 miles from Cleveland.  He played his high school basketball locally.  And because he went straight to the pros, he didn’t obscure his loyalties with a career at Duke, Kentucky or Ohio State.  Mr. James is that exceptionally rare athlete: the one who plays for the place he grew up in.  They call him “King James,” but this guy was manifestly a man of the people

This makes LeBron James truly old school.   He is precisely what a sports hero looked like before the rise of free agency and a competitive labor market.  From the fan’s point of view, he was “one of ours.”  In the old school model, the local hero doesn’t just win for Cleveland, he wins as Cleveland.  In the era of the high priced mercenary, it’s hard to remember this model, but there was a time when fans used to say “that’s us out there.”

To be sure, the commonalities were often more imagined than real.  (How many Cleveland fans grew up fatherless in the inner city?)  To his credit, Mr. James never made a thing of his differences.  He was gracious and inclusive as a local hero.  (We have seen sports heroes who are less generous, who seem to want to keep their glory for themselves.)

It’s this local connection that’s the problem.  Mr. James gave us the old school connection, and then like every other professional athlete in America, he betrayed it.  We had long ago forgotten and forgiven the general trend.  But here it was restaged, as if deliberately to taunt and wound us.  Fans who hate Mr. James are expressing a larger unhappiness.  They are protesting the hero as hired gun. 

Mr. James was old school and, until he bolted for Miami, we had forgotten how much we loved that school.  We had persuaded ourselves that it was okay we were represented by mercenaries.  And now that even this has been taken from us, now that Cleveland’s son has decamped, well, we’re going to have to blame someone and we think we’ve found our man. 

To be sure, Mr. James is the victim of an empty nostalgia.  We don’t really want local heroes if they can’t play.  Given the choice between local heroes and winning teams, the fan is clear.  (The great thing about Mr. James is that you didn’t have to choose.) 

Mr. James is also the victim of a marked hypocrisy.   Fans who play Fantasy League sports have pretty remarkable disloyalties of their own.  Cleveland haters may wish to examine their souls for moral defect.  Let he who is without sin burn the next jersey. 


Doyle, Ricky. 2010. “LeBron James Hatred Reaching New Levels as He Settles In With Heat.” NESN.com. http://www.nesn.com/2010/07/lebron-james-hatred-reaching-new-levels-as-he-settles-in-with-heat.html (Accessed September 27, 2010).

Rovell, Darren. 2010. “LeBron’s Q Score Takes Huge Hit.” CNBC. http://www.cnbc.com/id/39170785/LeBron_s_Q_Score_Takes_Huge_Hit (Accessed September 27, 2010).

Post script

I am in Cincinnatti for the TED conference there tomorrow.  I hope you will drop by and say hi if you are at the event.  

13 thoughts on “LeBron James, sacrificial hero?

  1. Dan

    Being a Twins fan myself and seeing first-hand the adoration of local hero Joe Mauer, I think that you have a point about the fan connection to the local boy made good being more meaningful. Especially for a player of transcendent ability. I believe that is playing into it.

    But it’s more than that. It’s the shameful way that LeBron James left, with his choreographed “The Decision” show on ESPN. It’s like watching your father divorce your mother (always hard but in some situations perhaps understandable or even inevitable) by announcing it on national television, celebrating the decision and then walking out of the broadcast with some floozy.

    That, more than anything, is the reason for the reaction against LeBron James.

  2. Alex Mitchell

    “Let he who is without sin burn the next jersey.” – Great quote.

    I think there is a piece missing here though. There is the act of leaving, and then there is the method by which the act was carried out. My perception is that the way in which LeBron’s leaving played out – the spectacle – was an insult to the city and fans. He wasn’t announcing which college he would play for out of high school (by which I mean, he didn’t *have* to make a move by choosing from among several suitors). He was actively choosing to leave a team – one on which he could have remained – for another team. It’s like leaving your boyfriend/girlfriend with whom you are happy (but not content) for another.

    As you say, many athletes have left Cleveland, but how many did so through an ESPN special that basically trumped everything else on TV (that night). The fans’ faces were rubbed in LeBron’s leaving, and the build-up only served to increase the level of injury to Cleveland’s pride (and honour). If LeBron had simply announced his intention to leave via a “normal” press conference, á la other athletes, I’m not sure the angst towards him would have persisted this long (or have soared to the same levels). I think people can respect gentlemanly conduct, and I’d heard sports commentators months before urging LeBron to move to New York (bigger market, better opportunities, greater likelihood of longer term success due to team with more money, etc). So I think, at least in popular opinion among sport literati, a move out of Cleveland was actually the smart move. If he’d carried it out with respect, he might have spared most of the ill-feelings and jersey burning.

    1. Grant Post author

      Alex, clearly, I missed this one, thanks to you, Dan and Steve for exploring the issue. G.

      1. Gunter Soydanbay

        Great article and great comments. That said, I am challenging the argument that he is hated because of the way acted. I think James is hated right now, even in Slovenia as one of the comments mentioned, because as “the hero”, he did not complete his journey. Heroes have a journey that they should go through with a solid code of ethic and a noble cause. City of Cleveland was the noble cause and the Curse was the major obstacle. Had he won and The Decision took place, still people would not feel as betrayed. He simply did not complete his heroic journey. That’s what mattered. I once wrote an article about this topic. Curious to hearing your thoughts. http://wp.me/pQuyG-8I

        1. Grant Post author

          Gunter, beautiful mapping of the theory. Thanks for the contribution. Best, Grant

  3. Indy

    I’d add an extra spin to this – basketball is as close as any of the popular team games to being one where a single star player can make the difference.

    RIghtly or wrongly, the basketball fan is steeped in the memory of the “Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.” The folk memory is that Jordan alone propelled the team to win.

    And Cleveland fans, on top of the local connection, had that in their minds. LeBron is classified as the most outrageously talented player in the league. In them minds of Cavs fans, he was Cleveland’s Jordan, destined to bring the championship to the city.

    Which brings us to a deeper subtext, beyond the individual man. In basketball Cleveland is not going anywhere. If LeBron couldn’t be persuaded to stay and couldn’t bring a championship – and what his moving really says is: “ain’t gonna happen here guys, I need a better support cast than this city can provide” – then his moving forces the Cavaliers fans to face up to a harsh reality – they are not at the races. So perhaps two dreams died the day LeBron announced his move – and any man who kills two dreams, well, his name is mud.

    (Contrast the NFL’s carefully engineered parity, perhaps…)

    1. Grant Post author

      Indy, great point, they bought his celebrity and they saw what his leaving meant to playoff hopes. Come to that, I guess James is like all the other people who have left Cleveland to go to greener pasturs and this makes him another opportunity for outrage. Thanks, G.

  4. Domen

    Fascinating topic. Runs deep. We have people in Slovenia hating James and I bet they know little about where he was raised or the spectacle he put on when he left. They do know one thing, though. What bothers them? It’s that feeling that he has somehow cheated the game. Being so good and destined for the ring anyway, he took a shortcut he didn’t need to take. It’s OK if ‘old’ (dare I say used up) players move to a better team to end their long ring-less career ‘properly. It’s OK if younger guys leave to a better team if their current team has no chance of winning. But someone that good leaving for (what was) arguably an average team. That’s dirty (in a M. Douglas kind of way).

    1. Grant Post author

      Domen, I like where you and Steve have taken this idea. It’s one thing to have the advantage of great talent, it’s another to insist on piling it on. Thanks.

  5. srp

    The graceless manner of leaving, as mentioned above, made James look bad. But I think Domen is close to the core here, also. What James, Wade, and Bosh did was a kind of collusion that we have not seen before from free agent athletes. It was like when the best athletes in school would gang up together on the playground so they could win for sure, instead of splitting up to make for a fair and interesting competition. Not cool.

    When management colludes, the players unions take them to arbitration or sues them. The public has no recourse in this case but vilification.

    1. Grant Post author

      Steve, what I like about this threesome is that it duplicates the threesome to which James belonged at St. Vincent’s with the small difference that they are all fabulously talented and paid, and this is, as you are pointing out, what makes it look greedy and heartless. Some Americans are tired of watching the rich get richer. Thanks. G.

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