The most polarizing athlete in sports, playing for the most polarizing team, just gave us the most polarizing post-game quote in living memory. Lebron James, after his Miami Heat lost the NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks, and after playing profoundly beneath his Herculean stature, said the following:
“All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that. They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal. But they have to get back to the real world at some point.”
Damn. Those who aren’t sports fans—or I guess it’s more appropriate to say, “fans of the many soap operas that swirl around sports”—might not realize what a break from the book of clichés this statement represents. Most post-game comments are so polished and filed down, they’d make a Mitt Romney speech look edgy. Players routinely behave for the cameras like they just graduated from the Madeira School for Girls. It’s like athletes went to a Meet the Press seminar on “how to say nothing.”
After last night’s crushing loss, Lebron’s All-Star teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were predictable portraits of propriety. Wade said, “First of all we give credit to the Dallas Mavericks…. We ran into a team that was obviously better than us.” Lebron, after a season that saw him ditch his hard-luck teammates in Cleveland, take his talents to South Beach and transition from hero to heel, chose to go a different route.
As one could imagine, he is getting crushed across the sports columns and the interwebs for letting the mask slip and speaking his mind. It’s being read as the ultimate statement of the “spoiled, arrogant” athlete. One headline read, “Lebron: reminding you that he’s super rich and you’re not.” Jalen Rose on ESPN said, “He needs to learn to speak to the media. He puts his foot in his mouth time and time again.” The NBC sports site Pro Basketball Talk blared the headlined, LeBron has a few arrogant words for those who hate him. Writer Kurt Hellin wrote, “LeBron is never going to win over many of those haters. But calling them jealous loses some on the fence…. Lebron has a long line of public relations blunders in the past year. You can add this one to the list.”
When I read Lebron’s words, frankly, I did a triple take. It’s practically a pro-wrestling quote designed to bring audience “heat” as an end unto itself. I kept thinking of former WWE heel Rick Rude starting matches by saying, “What I’d like to have right now is for all you fat, out of shape, [insert city] sweat-hogs to keep the noise down while I take my robe off and show all the ladies what a real man is supposed to look like.” But even in the scripted world of professional wrestling any heel knows that you rile people up before matches, not after.
There’s little point in mining Lebron’s psyche for his intentions. Was he being defensive? Insensitive? Even cruel? I have no clue and don’t really care. But I do think the quote deserves examination on its own terms. How can we deny the truth that many of us look to sports as a distraction from the trials and tribulations of our own lives? How can we deny that the reason so many of us read the sports page before the front page is that one is both bearable and comprehensible while the other simply isn’t?
We live in a crumbling nation with epic unemployment, 2 million people behind bars and vast wealth inequality, while being told that we inhabit the best country on earth and to think otherwise is heresy. In such a world, sports become more than an escape: it’s a refuge. It’s much easier—and emotionally manageable—to hate Lebron James than face our collective future.
Make no mistake, I’m not arguing that Lebron James was trying to point out the way sports deflects attention from other realities. I don’t put his comments in league with those of another hated athlete, Barry Bonds, who in 2005 asked why Congress had time to investigate steroids while people were dying in New Orleans. But his words should give us pause. There’s nothing wrong, in my view, with sports being a sweet evening escape from the problems that face us the next morning. There is something wrong with seeing athletes as avenues for our aggression when the real culprits exist outside the arena.