Earlier this year, one of the most momentous occasions in sports history occurred. Not the Giants winning a World Series, Tiger recovering from his domestic squabbles or even the Saints beating the overrated Colts in the Super Bowl. The most critical sports event of 2010 was LeBron James’ infamous “Decision” wherein he held a one-hour live interview on ESPN to announce what team he would go to in free agency. In one simple sentence “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” he changed the sports world forever, and brought forth a torrent of racial and cultural venom from Cleveland Cavalier fans who felt betrayed and abandoned. On Dec. 2, LeBron and his new team the Miami Heat return to Cleveland for his first time and perhaps re-evaluate the cultural significance of the “Decision” and what came from it.
LeBron’s “Decision” is played out across America every spring without inciting nearly as much venom. Every year high school stars are covered by local news, sitting at a table with multiple team hats until they slowly put one on and announce where they’ll play college basketball. LeBron always faced a racial and financial double standards. Sports are entertainment in America, but they also become an allegory for everything that is right or wrong with this country when convenient. This is especially the case with Basketball which, unlike other major sports, is dominated by African-Americans on the court, on the sidelines and behind the scenes. When the U.S. only won Bronze in the 2004 Olympics, “Hip-Hop” culture of the players is at fault. Players brawl with drunken fans after having beer thrown on them on national T.V., it’s the “thuggish” players who are out of control. NBA players turn around and win a thrilling Olympic gold medal in 2008 and it’s about the inspired youth that bring this country together. So this spring, when LeBron James announced that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to play for the Miami Heat the pendulum swung back in the other direction with him representing everything that is wrong with youth culture, athletes and tacitly, Black folks.
I was living in Cleveland Ohio at the time of the “Decision” and the anger directed at LeBron, primarily by White fans, was palpable. At the time I wrote that the city viewed him as a $40 million dollar slave, who owed them a loyalty that is only expected of Black athletes. LeBron completed his contract, played well and decided to move on, the expectation that he had a moral or psychological obligation to remain with his employers past that point was racialized arrogance at its most extreme. LeBron James was a businessman who brought more than $700,000 million to the city over his first contract in ticket sales, local bar tabs and merchandise. Rather than being treated like any other businessman who deserved to be wooed by local government and business he was depicted as a spoiled “Black” athlete who had no right to change his mind about where he played. LeBron left for quality of life issues and took less money to play in Miami, how many single 25-year-olds would rather live in Cleveland than Miami if the money was comparable?
With LeBron’s return Thursday new attention is being brought to retired players who chimed in on his decision and how he did it. Oscar Robinson whose game is most similar to James said he thought the decision was fine and respected the young player for thinking ahead. Of course more attention has been given to recent players like Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan who have decided to play the Bill Cosby role, and chastise James for not following their supposedly hallowed footsteps of sticking it out with one team and being “the man” whatever that entails. Jordan has gone so far as to make a “diss” commercial directed at LeBron calling his decision to leave Cleveland an “excuse” and a sign of a poor work ethic.
As it turns out King LeBron’s Miami Heat haven’t been all that hot this season. Hovering at .500 they have not been successful enough to become the marketing juggernaut that Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade and LeBron all thought they would be when they signed up this spring. It would be nice to think that when James returns to Cleveland he’d be viewed as a businessman who made a decision that perhaps in the short term wasn’t so bright. But I doubt it. He’s a $40 million dollar slave being dragged back through the dirt road of his plantation and forgiveness won’t be the order of the day.