Why America Still Hates LeBron: The Natural, Horatio Alger and the Myth of Hard Work

January 13, 2024
9 mins read

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 him.  Is 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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