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).
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.