Why ask the question?
When LeBron James spoke to CNN this past week, and the criticism of how he handled his free-agency arose, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien found it necessary to pose this query: “Do you think there’s a role that race plays in this?”
Really? In the thousand things O’Brien could have asked perhaps the world’s greatest (and certainly its most exposed) basketball player, she had to ask if race was why he was criticized?
Did she ask the same question when LeBron was drafted No. 1 out of high school? When he was voted MVP? When he was given more endorsement money than 100 other NBA players combined? Did she – or anyone else – ask, when all the positives were showering on LeBron’s head, “Do you think there’s a role that race plays in this? Do people love you because you’re African American?”
No. So why ask it now? There was no suggestion of it earlier. Not a peep. Still, no one should be surprised that LeBron’s answer was, “I think so at times. It’s always, you know, a race factor.”
Because sadly, when a high-profile African-American athlete hits an oil skid of controversy, it is all too easy to make race the culprit.
Especially if someone asks. A lesson in popularity
Why not look at the facts without color? Here. Let’s change LeBron’s name to Leo for this little exercise. Leo was a wildly popular player before this summer. Leo seemed loyal to his team and his home state, trying to bring it a winner. It’s a trait that has made many an athlete popular.
But then Leo went on the free-agent market, got together with two big-name players and hatched a plan to leave Cleveland and mold a superstar roster for the Miami Heat.
He then kept everyone in the dark until he could ensure a worldwide audience for a TV special, called “The Decision.” He got advertisers to shell out big dollars that he directed to a charity to make the event seem less of what it was, a one-hour celebration of his legend. Of course, Leo could have given money to the charity himself. But that wouldn’t have gotten him an hour on prime-time TV.
When asked that night what team he had chosen, Leo did not answer, “I’ve chosen Cleveland,” or even, “I’ll be proud to play for the Miami Heat.” He answered, “I’m gonna take my talents to South Beach”- suggesting that it was 1) more about his talent than anything and 2) time to get set for a party, because South Beach is not where the Heat plays, but it is open all night.
So after an hour’s indulgence for this “revelation” (remember, Michael Jordan came out of retirement with a two-word news release: “I’m back”), fans – black, white and brown – looked around and said, “Can you believe Leo’s ego?”
Because ego knows no color.
Whether it’s Leo or LeBron. An inconvenient truth
LeBron’s popularity dropped steadily after that event. And recently it was announced that he was the sixth-most disliked athlete, according to the latest Q Score. Now, I don’t put much stock in polls. But LeBron didn’t become internationally famous with only black fans liking him, and he didn’t reach this sudden infamy with only white fans bailing out.
In fact, to suggest that white people have some groupthink approach is racist in and of itself. And you see where this goes. The moment you suggest someone is motivated by a prejudice, you can never prove it wrong, and you can always attack the accuser.
So the Rev. Jesse Jackson can claim Dan Gilbert, the Cleveland owner, views LeBron as a “runaway slave” and LeBron’s business manager, Maverick Carter, who orchestrated the public relations fiasco, can claim race “definitely played a role”- and because we are so conditioned to take racist charges seriously, it all distracts from the painfully obvious truth, which is this:
LeBron now has a boundless ego, he has surrounded himself with people who tell him his feet don’t touch the ground, and he can’t possibly be at fault for anything.
By the way, there was similar vitriol toward Brett Favre after he left Green Bay. Ego. Money. Why didn’t CNN ask Favre if it was about race?
There is never a clear way out of this mess. But there is one way to avoid jumping in it. Stop asking the question. If people shamefully want to grab race as a parachute to safety, they’ll do it. You don’t have to pull the cord.
Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).