Black people aren't livid at LeBron James

September, 21, 2010
9/21/10
12:35
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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There was some talk last week about LeBron James' Q Rating, and how far it had fallen.

In many ways, that's the question of the summer in the NBA, and maybe the question of the year, in terms of race relations in America.

Vincent Thomas points out something fascinating on ESPN.com: Among black Americans, James' Q Rating has taken no real beating.

Thomas describes "black protectionism," a phrase coined after the O.J. Simpson trial.
The more America shuns LeBron, the more Black America retreats to his corner. In fact, as America hates LeBron more and more, Black America's collective hug embraces LeBron tighter and tighter. It's called black protectionism.

Athletes have always been inspirational figures within the black community and -- as far back as Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson -- often have taken the public racial hit for the team. So, naturally, through the years, they've engendered an almost automatic protectionism response whenever America -- whether justifiably or not -- decides it wants to hate them. You saw it with Hank Aaron. You saw it with Barry Bonds. You saw it with Allen Iverson. You saw it with Michael Vick. You're seeing it now with LeBron James. There are plenty of black folks who want LeBron to drop 60 on the Cavs when he visits Cleveland and wouldn't mind the maligned Heat winning a championship. ...

If that were merely it, if folks just said, "Eh, I don't really like the guy -- I think he's kind of a jerk," the black protectionism probably wouldn't be so strong. But there are yahoos in Cleveland burning his jersey, brewing smarmy beer called "Quitness," and putting up ingrate billboards. Frothy-mouthed Cavs owner Dan Gilbert made like Syndrome from "The Incredibles," sending out a maniac missive, stopping just short of calling down evil upon LeBron. Even NBA legends -- mostly black men, coincidentally -- got in on the action. Charles Barkley called LeBron's free agency choice a "punk move." It seems everybody and their mothers have weighed in to let LeBron know just how much they don't like him.

And for what? Why? Because "The Decision" was annoying and self-indulgent? I'm sorry, but Brett Favre was nowhere to be found on The Q Scores Co.'s top 10 most disliked list. And, dig this: America dislikes LeBron more than it dislikes Ben Roethlisberger. That's just not deserved. So, you know what? Enter the ride-or-die black community.

"The more LeBron is vilified," Russell-Brown said, "the more the community will respond. Protectionism comes in as a tempering."

A few weeks ago, airport-hopping while on vacation, I saw at least a half dozen Miami Heat, LeBron No. 6 jerseys -- all worn by black men. Given today's anti-LeBron climate, rocking his jersey is a fairly defiant act. It says, "Screw the rest of these folks, LeBron, I'm riding with you, homeboy." It might seem as if LeBron is on an island, right now, but something tells me he knows he's not alone.

If you click through and read Thomas' whole story, you'll see there is not evidence this whole episode exactly endeared James to the black community. Instead, black Americans just didn't go along when the dominant storyline came to be that James was evil. His negative Q ratings, in other words, did not change much after The Decision.

That dynamic is actually not that hard for me to understand. As I have been writing all along, I understand why Clevelanders would be demonizing James. And I understand why people everywhere might be annoyed, or disappointed -- especially in cities that hoped to see him in their uniforms. But having so many people so upset with him ... that has been puzzling to me since the night the decision was announced. Something strange, something bigger, something beyond normal sports conversation has been going on.

Now that we're seeing that black people have not been a meaningful part of that crowd driving James' fall from grace, the plot thickens. (In the Orlando Sentinel, Shannon J. Owens points out that race is a significant factor in an athlete's likability. You can see this conversation could get complicated very quickly.)

I'm left with a refined question. I used to wonder why people were so upset, and even hateful toward LeBron James ever since The Decision. But now the question is more along the lines of: Why are white people so upset. (They're not the whole group, but the demographics show they're big players.) The laundry list of complaints I have heard from NBA fans directly is almost too long to catalog, but includes: He should never have said he would be loyal to Cleveland. He should have told the team before he went on television. He is cowardly in joining Dwyane Wade. He is childish in wanting to be near the famous party area of South Beach. He is fatally flawed as a player, lacks heart, and ought to have never tantalized fans into thinking he was heroic. He was arrogant beyond all imagination in having a TV show to announce his decision.

I believe people really feel all of those things, but none of that, to me, explains the depth of the passion and hatred that you're likely to find in the comments of this very post, and others like it on the topic.

At the risk of being lumped in with James in being called arrogant, I'm going to quote myself, from the night of The Decision:
A theory: It's because he stepped out of place. Players play. That's how it was. They are quiet and sweaty craftsmen who ought not to be heard from except to call out plays and say "yessir" to the coach. The way sports used to be, owners did things like make billion-dollar decisions and general managers and agents did things like agonize over personnel.

But that was always a myth. The owners, GMs and agents may have seemed like they held all the cards, but that's only because players weren't great at wielding the power they had. The players always drove the value, because they are what motivated the fans who paid for everything. It has taken decades, but eventually a player -- this player -- figured out how to really put himself in the driver's seat, with billionaire owners lining up, one by one, attempting to earn his valuable affections.

He took the power of free agency and instead of just quietly using it to slip out the back door, he milked it. He played it out. He built his own roster. He played kingmaker.

He went beyond exercising his rights. He demonstrated his might in the worlds of business, team management and media.

It's not a role we're used to seeing athletes in, and it startled many. But I'm certain it's a role athletes belong in. People have analyzed how much a superstar like James is worth to a team. It's many times what he is paid every year, and has been throughout his career. It rivals what the whole team is worth. He has been paying the bills, in no small way, for the Cavaliers for years. That might not be appealing to think about, but it's true. James knows that, and -- even though it's not in the playbook of how athletes typically speak to the public -- he acted like it.

Powerful people flexing their muscles in public is not uncommon. Have you seen Donald Trump? And even though James could not have been more respectful -- he thanked the six teams he met with, and didn't say a bad word about anybody -- he knew he was in the power seat. Some preferred a world where no athlete had ever done that. But that day is gone, and it's never coming back.

If I'm right, then James is in fact not just inspiring hatred among some fans, but also hatred's constant companion: Fear. If there is such a thing as hatred without fear, I've never seen it. So, let's assume James scared some people, and that made them angry. But by the looks of things, his power play -- his black power play -- was not all that scary to black people. What we have to figure out is why it was so scary to so many others.

Henry Abbott | email

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