In an election year during which the incumbent uses his basketball fandom to gain "everyman" status, it's hard not to think about politics with every pass of the ball, every shot through the hoop, every board ripped down from the glass. Sports are a part of our national fabric as much as, if not more than, debates, primaries, and straw polls.
Several weeks ago, I was pointed to an article about Harrison Barnes in The Atlantic titled "Moneyballer." It was sent by a friend, arguing—incorrectly, if you ask me—against college basketball players being paid, using Barnes' self-branding strategy as an example of how colleges offer enough opportunity already. One nod to Barnes' generally infuriating self-branding decisions particularly got my goat. You've probably heard others complain about it:
Although he founded a Bible-study group in high school and paid particularly close attention when he met Barack Obama before a game aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier earlier this season, he’s reluctant to discuss either experience. “Anytime you want to get into religious or political views,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “that can instantly polarize people.” (In this he seems also to be following in the footsteps of Jordan, who, when asked why he wouldn’t endorse Harvey Gantt in a Senate race against Jesse Helms two decades ago, reportedly answered, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”)I railed against Barnes for days, cursed the evilness of MJ's legacy, and lamented the lack of personalized, political passion in the world of athletics—at least from the most meaningful members of that world. But a week and a half ago, a link to a photo you've probably seen by now showed up on my timeline and made me realize that, just maybe, there's been a one-man rebellion growing right under our noses.
But at the end of his second season, in 2005, LeBron fired Goodwin and started his own company, headed by his now-somewhat-infamous childhood friend Maverick Carter. As detailed in a 2007 Fortune article titled "LeBron Inc.", James's move was a result of his "want[ing] to own [his] own business." The company, LRMR, continued to build the LeBron James image in a way not altogether different than the one concocted under Goodwin: For years, we saw him as an impossibly stunning athlete with a great smile, a decent sense of humor, a strong desire to win, and no discernible political opinions. In early 2007, in fact, he caught a bit of criticism for not signing a letter to the Chinese government regarding their consumption of Sudanese oil (he claimed he didn't know enough about the situation to sign on).
That is to say, he was another player in the model that Harrison Barnes is shooting for.
Somewhere along the way, though—specifically in the year and a half following the China controversy—one started to notice some changes in LeBron's demeanor. He became more vocal about his displeasure with the Cavs' playoff performances. He sported a Yankees hat to an Indians game. He donated $20,000 to the Democratic National Convention to support Barack Obama's election campaign. In short, he started to show some signs that not only did he have opinions on things, but that he was more interested in doing what he wanted to do, living his life as he saw fit, than he was in maintaining a flawless image that wouldn't be disagreeable to anyone who had gained or re-gained interest in the NBA during his reign.
And sure enough, it was around this time that you could start to hear some questions about LeBron's personality, about his passion for the game and his team, about his place at the top of Role Model Mountain. He's not winning championships like MJ, the whispers went. He looks a little too angry. His entourage is too big.
This all led up, of course, to "The Decision," to the moment when LeBron's image would take what appeared to be an irreparable hit. In the weeks that followed, how many commentators did we hear beg the question, "Is that something Michael Jordan would have done?" Many casual fans begrudged his selfishness, his tactlessness, and his lack of loyalty to Ohio. The general thought was: Too bad, I guess he's not like Mike. But despite my initial anger and disappointment that LeBron jilted my Knicks, as time went on, I started feeling a much stronger reaction toward the whole thing: Thank God, he's not like Mike.
Fast forward to 2012. The Miami Heat are coming off a Finals' loss, but look like favorites to get there again. LeBron, now the sixth most disliked athlete in the world (according to both the Q Score Company and Forbes), has an image that is a far cry from that of his first few years in the league: Now he's a quitter, a traitor, a big baby, somebody kids have no business looking up to. The Heat locker room might as well be synonymous with the Death Star.
Two weeks ago, though, LeBron tweeted the picture near the top of this post, of he and his Heat teammates wearing hoodies in honor of slain teenager Trayvon Martin, and complicated all the strong opinions fans have built up since that fateful ESPN broadcast in 2010. While, as mentioned, he donated money to Obama's election campaign, it's hard to think of that act as going out on any sort of political limb. It was assumed early on, and perhaps rightly so, that most black Americans, including famous athletes, would support the idea of getting a black man into the White House for the first time. Not an eyelash was batted.
But the hoodie photo, with its #WeWantJustice and #Stereotyped hashtags, felt like something with higher stakes. Maybe it was the personal nature of seeing a tweet come directly from him, or maybe it was the fact that the issue was still inspiring pretty heated debate on the topic of our justice system and its flaws. Whatever the reason, the world seemed taken by surprise that LeBron would go out of his way to support this cause.
From my observations, though, that photo was a culmination of all the moves he's been making in recent years, the same moves that have turned off so many fans. To put it simply, once we step back, the recent career and personal trajectory of LeBron James is one of a 20-something growing up, finding out who he is and what he cares about, and trying to learn how to deal with the world while making himself happy. It's of course specific to his situation as a rich and famous superstar, but there's also something unexpectedly universal about it.
To me, when we combine all these things—"The Decision," the awkward public image gaffes, the recent and hopefully growing dabbles into political opinion and support for just causes—what we get is a sort of refreshing anti-MJ, a young man who at some point decided he could no longer live his life in the most easily endorsable way, but instead needed some breathing room to do things the way he saw fit. LeBron James has visibly changed as a human being, getting away from the bland, likable, opinion-free Role Model status that Harrison Barnes seems to so covet, and grown into a fuller, more flawed, yet far more interesting (and now, it seems, passionate) 27-year old. All the while he's remained the best basketball player in the world and hopefully inspired a generation of young basketball fans—who have also recently been exposed to Occupy Wall Street and debates about financial inequality—not to be afraid to show some political skin.
Making comparisons to someone like Muhammad Ali, as Dave Zirin recently did at The Nation, is both silly and unfair. But when looking at LeBron's recent stand for Trayvon Martin, his family, and all those who have been treated unfairly by an often overtly biased justice system, it's fair to make another comparison, via a question that Harrison Barnes might wish to ponder:
Is that something Michael Jordan would have done?