Commentary

LeBron backlash is a race reminder

His audacity in acknowledging race as a factor seems to have perturbed people

Originally Published: October 5, 2010
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

Seems like even when there's not a race issue there is a race issue in this country. Even when one of the best-known (once loved and now hated) athletes in the world responds to a question about the small role race might have played/continues to play in the backlash about his departure from one city and entrance into another.

And yet, LeBron James' offseason has not been about race as much as it's been about the fact that he has not yet transcended race. As large as he's become (or been made, depending on who you ask), LeBron has not reached the Jordan/Oprah/Michael Jackson/Tiger Woods/Barack Obama (pre-Presidency) level of identification in which people do not think about his color, race or ethnicity when identifying with him.

Yet someone has to say what LeBron couldn't.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeIf race isn't a factor in LeBron's sudden unpopularity, what is?

When speaking to CNN last week about the role race has played in the overall reaction (nothing else) to his post-Cavaliers life, LeBron did nothing more than acknowledge the undercurrent to how he went from love to hate in the eyes of the public faster than any athlete in recent history who didn't break a law or a marriage vow.

Does at least some of the behavior of fans (turned non-fans) have anything to do with the fact that James is not white? Probably. Does part of the admiration he received in becoming one of the most beloved athletes of this generation have something to do with the fact that he's black? Probably.

In almost every black person's life -- and most will tell you this -- there comes a time when we are reminded of who we are; more importantly, when we're reminded of the color of our skin. It's our gut check. LeBron James was just reminded. The extreme nature of how many people responded to his "decision" and the way he handled it was his personal and professional gut check.

The problem many people seem to have with that, in LeBron's mind, is not that he was reminded he is African-American, but that he had the audacity to acknowledge it.

Did race play a role in the different treatments Notre Dame gave Charlie Weis and Ty Willingham? Does race play a role in why Eminem has sold more records and is more popular than Jay-Z? Did race have anything to do with the response to the people and areas affected by Hurricane Katrina? We could go on forever. Trust me, the list is long. And every answer to each situation is the same: Yes and no. It all depends on who's being asked and who is answering.

This time, LeBron answered.


The best recent close-to-fair comparison that can be used to prove that race probably is a factor in all of this? Brett Favre. Favre has moved from team to team and kept the public in the dark about his status much more often and just as dramatically and significantly as LeBron did this one time. Will he go back to the Packers? Will he go back to the Jets? Will he stay retired? Will he return to the Vikings? Yet Favre, it seems, has never generated the level of contempt from the public or the media that James seems to be catching right now.

Even using the Q Score as a barometer, Favre never took a hit equal or close to LeBron's. In 2008, Q Score executive VP Henry Schafer made this comment in a Gannett Wisconsin Media story when Favre's Q Identification was above Michael Jordan's and Tiger Woods': "[Favre's] always been in our top 10 among sports personalities [in recent years], but he's never been at the level he is at now."

Then in 2010, after Favre spent a number of years stringing organizations (and the public) along about retirement before either going to another team or re-signing -- earning the reputation as sport's premier prima donna -- Schafer still maintained in a Palm Beach Post story that "[Favre] has a way about him that is appealing for America. Whether it's his down-home personality, his grittiness, his longevity, he's certainly a winning quarterback -- that all seems to work in his favor."

[+] EnlargeBrett Favre
AP Photo/Jim MoneHasn't Brett Favre done the same thing over and over again that LeBron did this summer?

And while confirming Favre's hold on popularity -- he was the 13th most popular figure in sports earlier this year in the company's research -- Schafer went on to say, "Based on our data, I think it's fair to say that [American sports fans] may be sick of the waffling, but not sick of him."

James, on the other hand, went from being one of the most popular and loved athletes alive to one of the most disliked in a matter of months.

Despite the pageantry of LeBron's offseason, what did he do that Favre didn't?

Are the intangibles that dramatically different? Age? Career? Sport played? Winning percentage? Stats? Records? Championship rings? Legacies? "Down home personality?" "Grittiness?"

If so, cool. But on the surface, on the basis of similar popularity and behavior, Favre and James are Siamese. Reflective images. Yet, somehow, LeBron's "behavior" was less acceptable than Brett's. While Favre's "waffling" is tolerated, James' decisiveness is unacceptable.

Which is why LeBron and his manager, Maverick Carter, who also was interviewed by CNN, feel there's something deeper going on. Because if race isn't one of the factors in why the reaction has been so extremely different between one non-white athlete (James) and one white athlete (Favre), then what is?

And if LeBron is unable to answer a simple question about his feelings on whether race is a factor in his case without being vilified publicly (again), then where does the real racism reside? In his answer or in the response to it?

The recent extreme reaction to LeBron's CNN interview does more to validate his belief than any survey taken to measure someone's appeal.


Is this is a column about Brett Favre? A column about one of the most beloved athletes in America and his decision to leave an organization he'd rebuilt and the backlash and hate that comes with how he handled his exit? A column about a public's response and the media's treatment? A column about Q Scores and popularity drops? A column about the color of skin? Is it a column about what would happen if a white athlete were black?

Or is this a column about America?

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeAt the end of the day, shouldn't we at least listen to LeBron's answers?

When it comes to race and sports in this country, there seems to be two types of people: those who see race as an issue in damn near everything and those who don't see color at all.

It's like watching the movie "The Blind Side." It can be the perfect metaphor in determining who we are. There are those who saw race as an issue in that film, and those who didn't see color at all.

Who are you?

Who am I?

In the May 19, 2008, edition of "The Nation," Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this about the supposed post-racial generation of African-Americans that exists in America: "Indeed, it is a deeper black, the mark of the less defensive, more self-assured African-American leadership. Our forebears, God bless them, held blackness like an albatross which they sought to affix around the neck of white America. But this generation, Obama's generation, holds blackness like a garland, sure in the knowledge that the only neck it belongs around is our own."

There's an old saying: "There's no such thing as a race card; in America, it's a race deck." Of all the things LeBron James might have done wrong in the last five months, his last -- claiming that race probably has played a role in the overall reaction to his offseason activities -- to many might have been the wrongest.

But that doesn't mean what he said was wrong. Nor does that mean what he meant shouldn't be heard. Or understood. Or taken into consideration.

Those people who still have a problem with LeBron claiming that race has been a factor and continues to play a role in the fallout from "The Decision" need to ask themselves this question: If LeBron were white, would he be going through the same thing?

The answer is no different than any other honest answer we should come to when situations like this occur: Yes … and no.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.

MORE COMMENTARY

Scoop Jackson | email

ESPN.com columnist

ALSO SEE