By Thabiti Lewis
Last week, Lebron James responded to a number of racist Twitter messages he received. He reluctantly conceded that race is perhaps the reason many are rooting against him. In doing so, after years of trying to be politically correct and race neutral Lebron revealed for the second time in three weeks the bad hand he has been dealt in the way of public perception and race.
A few sports writers caution James that pulling the race card may hurt his public image. But those who worry about the race card fail to realize that James’ situation is akin to a game of Old Maid. And just like in Old Maid after all the pairs have been matched, the person left holding the ‘old maid’ card loses. In this case, James is stuck holding the race card.
Throughout his career James has tried to appease everyone, but once he opted to appeal to himself, questions about him being a bad person suddenly emerged. His popularity today has even allegedly dropped below that of the recently maligned Tiger Woods. In an ESPN/Seton Hall Sports poll of 900 people to gauge James’s popularity, only 32 percent of white fans favor him compared to 64 percent of black fans (Tiger Woods was favored by 35 percent of white fans).
The urge to recast James as the bad guy largely stems from his recent willingness to acknowledge the racial dynamics surrounding his image—from the way he chose to leave the Cavaliers to his disclosure of racist messages sent to him on Twitter. In the aftermath, he and his other star Miami Heat teammates—Wade and Bosh—have been has unfairly deemed by some experts “bad cowboys” with a “bunker mentality.”
Can this be real? Does releasing the public racist messages sent to him on Twitter really transform Lebron James into a “bad cowboy?” Now, angered, and perhaps fatigued, he plays the hand that has been dealt to him.
On Friday ESPN SportsCenter finished its three part series on the public perceptions of Lebron James. Allow me to save us all time to understand the dynamics driving the perceptions.
In my new book Ballers of the New School I attempt to explain the impetus behind perils and perceptions of modern athletes in America. To understand the recent negative public perception of James, one must concede that there are numerous images of Black male identity that dominate the American psyche. These images range from egocentric and barbaric to excessively humble (the latter being most appealing to mainstream culture). The question of James lagging in popularity results from his decision to abandon the excessively humble persona.
Although largely apolitical, modern Black athletes are trouble for those who want to put them in a box because they do not “know their place.” By contrast, this new generation of athletes, whom I call Ballers of the New School (BNS), use performance on and beyond the playing field to claim space in the American landscape, boldly asserting their own modern voice, style, rules, and values. BNS are complex because sometimes they transform and other times they reify the socially produced distortions of black people.
Athletes of the last three decades are also problematic because they demand as much respect and money as they can claim, without apology or overstated humility. Perhaps Latrell Sprewell’s words in his famous AND 1 commercial best epitomize the complexity of sports culture, race, and BNS when he said: “You say I’m an American nightmare; I say I’m the American Dream.”
James’s recent actions officially earned him disfavor. He joins the legion of athletes that refuse to play the game of “appease and be humble.” Those who refuse to accept this role are depicted as angry, full of rage, uppity, ungrateful for their opportunities, or “bad cowboys.” BNS like James who do not play by the rules of the racial card shuffle are vilified.
James’s lagging public acceptance stems from having committed a serious infraction: he broke the racial covenant or what Charles Mills calls in his book of the same name, the racial contract. Mills argues that this contract has its own rules and ways of knowing the world—according to an assumed racial hierarchy. By breaking the contract and revealing a less than post-racial reality, James instantly earns a tag of “bad cowboy.”
Yet what is germane to James and this generation of ballers is that their culture is hip-hop. The aesthetics and principles encourage creativity and free self-expression, entrepreneurship, underground networks, the unconventional, and carving one’s own space in a republic unwilling to consistently offer equity and opportunity to non-whites.
The BNS who reach hero status yet reject the racial contract find themselves facing media campaigns that spin them as bad people. The responses to this refusal are clear indicators of the racial state of our nation.
So what really is James’s crime that such extensive vitriol and anger is being cast in his direction?
As a BNS James’s crime is his rejection of the “model minority” role in America. Playing this role means that he should be submissive, apologetic in speech, and willing to be put through the paces by white Americans to prove himself worthy. James pulled as many of these cards as his hand could hold before figuring out that more than anyone else, he alone determines his worth.
Thabiti Lewis teaches English at Washington State University Vancouver and is the author of Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America (Third World Press).
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