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By John “JD” Roberts | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

 

Saturday, June 30, 2012.

 

As the dust settles on LeBron James winning his first NBA Championship, many Americans still dislike LeBron.  It is not even a debate-worthy topic anymore because many public opinion polls have overwhelmingly supported the idea that the general public dislikes James.  But why the hate?  By all accounts, LeBron is charitable, helps kids, loves his mama, does not appear disrespectful to his fiancée, and does not get in trouble with the law.  As a reformed LeBron hater myself, my dislike of LeBron has made me reassess America’s approach to sports and my own.  No matter how many wedding photos LeBron poses in, babies he burps, or little old ladies he helps cross the street, Americans outside of South Beach on the whole seem to not accept LeBron as their NBA superstar.  However, it is not simply because of “The Decision,” or as one guest pundit on NPR recently proposed, LeBron’s inappreciativeness, which in and of itself is (probably) a misperception.  Instead, LeBron is a victim of his own identity, an extraordinarily gifted black athlete that America has perceived as not having worked hard to get where he has gotten in the NBA.

 

 

At St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, LeBron exploded onto the scene as a freshman, averaging 21 points a game.  As he progressed through high school, he improved his game and stats steadily as he grew into his eventual 6’8”, 250 pound frame.  Tracked by Five Star and playing in the AAU circuit, early on he was well known, establishing himself as an athletic talent able to dominate his competition.  While comparisons of any athlete to Michael Jordan are often unfair, there is one comparison here to LeBron that is quite illustrative.  Even (and I would argue especially) when Jordan was at the height of his playing career, dominating his competition on the way to six NBA Championships, announcers obsessively brought up Jordan’s struggles and hard work to make his high school basketball team.  The level of adversity he experienced and the hard work Jordan put in to make his high school varsity team hides the fact that he had a growth spurt between his sophomore and junior year and regularly ran roughshod on his junior varsity competition in his sophomore year.  That part of the narrative does not complement the overall goals of the media’s message to its audience, one which the average American audience always wants to hear: stars like Michael Jordan got to the pinnacle of their professions through hard work, adversity, perseverance and dedication. 

 

While LeBron James’s early personal life presented him with plenty of adversity off the court, his “athletic life” was never a problem.  He was on the radar of college and NBA scouts since junior high school.  Some people like LeBron James are naturally gifted athletes.  Some people like Michael Jordan are naturally gifted athletes, but also have the historical narrative on their side of hard work and adversity.  Some people are the underdogs, and those are truly the most beloved athletes in America, almost wallowing and basking in the accidental glory of their hard work and adversity.  Why is America so hard on the naturally talented athlete though?

 

Obviously, the American public can identify with an underdog and cannot readily identify with a superiorly gifted athlete.[1]  Additionally, the naturally gifted athlete has often been historically derided as surly, having a bad attitude toward their chosen sport, or taking their athletic blessing for granted.  LeBron’s media image should not be compared to the “bad boy” of yesterday he mimicked, Charles Barkley, in his own Nike Role Model Campaign, but mirrors the likes of say, Wilt Chamberlain or Jim Brown.  All three were/are naturally gifted athletes that excelled in their sports in a seemingly effortless fashion.  These gifted athletes were standoffish at times and made their respective games seem easy for them.  When players like this fail, their failure is celebrated, much like Wilt Chamberlain’s celebrated failures against the serious and studious Bill Russell, or LeBron failing against the more “elegant” game of Dirk Nowitzki.  “The Natural” fails in the face of the more studious, elegant, and supposedly hard working cerebral opponent.  Raw natural talent is not earned, but is a gift, and when it fails, it is equivalent to man defeating a machine.  The machine does not have to work hard to excel or “know” what to do.[2]  Therefore, when the machine (or in this case, the naturally gifted athlete) is defeated, the defeat is always celebrated as a defeat in favor of humanity (which is imperfect) over perceived perfection (machine, or in this case, the naturally gifted athlete). 

 

It does not matter that LeBron has dedicated himself to hone his skills through practice and hard work.  LeBron James could not excel in the NBA by only driving to the hoop for a dunk or a layup and bulldozing his opponents.  If that was LeBron’s only strategy, defensive schemes could be crafted by NBA tacticians to stop him.  He has had to craft a jumpshot, free throws, and moves in the lane through many years of practice, and he has conditioned his body through training and weightlifting.  His hard work is superseded by his body; an impossibly strong, agile and swift body that happens to be black.

 

If LeBron were white, he would be venerated as a freak of nature.  He would be an awesome dominant force that had inexplicably been born to dominate the NBA, and the NBA fans would love him for it.  It would not matter how much work he had put into his game, because he would be a white superman that dominated his opposition effortlessly.  His decision to take his talents to South Beach might be lauded as a shrewd decision in his search for a championship and better marketing opportunities.  Instead he (along with many other black athletes, particularly in the NBA and NFL) has been seen as an extraordinary talent in a long line of naturally gifted black athletes.  African Americans have attained the stereotypes in the second half of the 20th century as (always) fast, (always) strong, and (always) able to jump high. 

 

These stereotypes on the surface seem favorable or benign, but they are not, because they make black Americans who cannot do these things less than the stereotypical “average,” and reduce blackness to physical attributes and athletic performance.  In this case, ideas of supposed black “natural gifts” are again deleterious and destructive, but in an opposite direction from the naturally gifted athlete, hemming black Americans into a box of athletic superiority, a role impossible to achieve for most.  Whiteness has been tied in sports to hard work and work ethic, while blackness has not.  Instead, blackness has been linked to natural ability, which is somehow (coincidentally?) inferior in the minds of American fans.

 

In many ways, LeBron’s life has mimicked Bernard Malamud’s book The Natural.  Roy Hobbs experiences a miraculous baseball season fifteen years after he was shot by Harriet Bird.  With his team the New York Knights, he performs superhuman feats on the baseball diamond after he takes over for the Knights’ former star Bump.  As Hobbs’s fame and profile grow, journalist Max Mercy seeks to discover what is really the story behind Roy Hobbs.  In the end of the book, corrupted by his desire for fame and wealth, and concerned about his own glory, Hobbs reneges on throwing the baseball game and tries to win, but strikes out anyway.  Throughout the book, Hobbs is infatuated by a beautiful woman named Memo who barely likes him over a woman named Iris who loves him dearly.  How does this book (notice the now famous Robert Redford movie adaptation is MUCH different than the book) compare to LeBron’s situation?  No matter how the public feels about the appropriateness of “The Decision,” LeBron spurned Cleveland to seek more fame and glory with another team (Memo vs Iris). 

 

In the 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, he became so worried with the weight of failure that he disappeared in the 4th quarter of those games and averaged well below his season average points per game (worried about his name and his own glory, Hobbs strikes out).  After The Decision, it is obvious that LeBron is consumed with how the American public sees him (Hobbs wants to be loved by Memo and she does not love him back).  His commercials for kids staying in school, the highlighted charity work (including The Decision money going to charity), the half-hearted Nike Role Model Campaign, and the impromptu posing with people in their wedding photos all smacks of a man who wants to be liked by a public that will not accept his overtures.  LeBron has been lauded all his life for his extraordinary natural talents, but he has recently come to the realization that despite those accolades, people seem to not like himIs it because of his talents he took to South Beach, or his personality?        

 

I would argue that the hard work and/or adversity narratives are what LeBron has lacked until recently.  The 2011 NBA Finals loss by LeBron and the Miami Heat provided the adversity needed for his 2012 NBA Finals win, leading to what I predict will be LeBron’s eventual “redemption” with the American public over time.  Americans require hard work and adversity to legitimate their love of superstar athletes, but where does this need originate?  

 

The need to overcome something through hard work and adversity is seemingly encoded in America’s DNA.  It does not matter how authentic the narrative really is for America’s historical trajectory.  From Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” to Hollywood, to the more formative influences of Horatio Alger’s youth books, America has hungered to believe that hard work, adversity, “rugged individualism,” and a little bit of luck have made America great.[3]  One could argue that Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick series has done as much harm as it has good to American political and social thought.  Alger’s late 19th century books for young adults followed a set formula of young boys gaining wealth and status in society through hard work and overcoming adversity, rising out of their unfortunate circumstances, sometimes with the help of some good fortune or fortuitous coincidences (think pulling oneself up by the bootstraps).  While it demonstrates the infinite optimism of what can happen through hard work and determination in America, it also deludes some, often associates hard work primarily with those who have not, and negatively affects those who have not achieved success in their working lives. 

 

Does the coal miner work as hard as the successful entrepreneur?  The most important point in the case of LeBron though is the association of the have nots with hard work.  The consequence of this idea is questioning those naturally gifted individuals’ (intelligence, athleticism, appearance) work ethic.  If one’s work ethic is questioned, one’s status as “deserving it” is questioned.  America rejects those viewed as not “deserving it.”  Therefore, America up until this point has rejected LeBron James as their NBA superstar. 

 

Having come to the end of this article and realizing I might have written what could be perceived as Atlas Shrugged: The Athlete’s Edition, I would like to instead reiterate my main point, which are the fallacies America has created when it comes to pro sports.  Extraordinary athletes like LeBron James have been groomed early in their high school careers based on their natural abilities, and then are faulted for their status as venerated athletes when they eventually turn pro. 

 

The very system of sports, which has created an unfathomable amount of wealth for owners and athletes, is fed by the dollars of the average working stiff/fan, who believes NBA players like Brian Scalabrine work harder than LeBron James because one player is more like them than the other.  Narratives are constructed to demonstrate how each athlete deserves to be where they are, regardless of the truth behind that narrative or the narrative’s motivations.  These narratives are historically constructed by American circumstance, which includes a heavy dose of racism, classism, Social Darwinism, and Horatio Alger tales along the way.  The construction of these narratives often does not favor black athletes, and definitely does not favor a superiorly gifted black athlete like LeBron James. 

 

Players get built up by the media and the fans to be summarily torn down for not working hard enough, not having enough heart, or not having enough natural ability as they get older.  If I had anything to tell LeBron James, it would be to keep working hard, stay out of trouble, and let the haters (like myself, before I reformed) hate.  No matter what LeBron does, it will be the media and the American public that constructs his historical narrative for him.                                                  

              

***

 

John (J.D.) Roberts is a PhD student in the History Dept at UMass-Amherst. He focuses on drug trafficking history in Latin America, but has researched and written on a wide array of issues globally, particularly globalization and illegality.

 

[1] Perhaps the 13 Colonies’ underdog status against Mother England in the American Revolution kickstarted America’s affinity to the underdog, even though we are now (and still) the world’s hegemon.

[2] The Legend of John Henry for instance would actually equate LeBron James to the steam powered hammer instead of John Henry.

[3] For FJT’s “Frontier Thesis,” see: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/TURNER/

 

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