Race As A Factor In The Media Portrayal Of LeBron James PDF Print E-mail
Written by Roger M. Groves   

I recently posted “The Demonization of LeBron James.”  The total post was just over 2,140 words. Buried in the third to the last paragraph was exactly five short sentences (less than 5 percent of the total) that involved my perception of a racial aspect to this controversy. I said:

“And I wonder whether there is another dynamic from this demonization that is taboo to discuss in mainstream America. I suspect there are some hate-speakers with social baggage. There is overwhelming support for LeBron from African Americans not living in Miami from my unscientific polling. They expressed a cultural compassion not shared by the national media. That media of reporters and sportscasters is over 97% white as are the majority of fans in America. They apparently see the same events quite differently in emphasis and expectation.”


Frankly, I have been very impressed with qualitative distinctions and disagreements in the vast majority of the comments. If you have day jobs, your employer is getting jobbed. The comments have overwhelmingly been thoughtful, objectively based and proof positive that reasonable people can disagree without being disagreeable. And they stuck to the primary issues. Most often they itemized various non-race-based reasons for spitting on LeBron’s poster. I get that.

But some of the comments, and I mean no more than 10%, chose to accentuate the racial discussion. They essentially ignored carefully chosen words that “some” have social baggage and preferred to conclude I was blaming all of white America or perhaps them personally. Yet I suspect most of us agree that we are not yet a completely post-racial society. There are at least 50 KKK-styled hate groups just within the Pacific Northwest. So can we all agree that there are “some” within our society who carry “social baggage”?  Now I don’t think social baggage is confined to the card carrying members noted above. And as I hope to explain below, social baggage is not code for racism.

Sometimes we gain insight from what someone chooses not to say. It was no oversight that there was no emphasis on race in the post.  That was for a reason. And it was not a coincidence that the incendiary “R” label was not attached to the white media and all of white American fandom. I may have some dumb spots, but I am not dumb enough to allege that every white sportscaster and fan that disapproves of LeBron must be racist. The fallacy of such an argument is obvious.

First, overbroad stereotypes are the tools of lazy analysis. It’s easy to say “You know how they are” as if an entire group has identical DNA. There are about as many African Americans in the US as there are people in Canada and there are plenty of cultural divides within. Similarly, there is no monolithic way to give attribution or blame to an entire group of 318 million people living in the US, a majority of which are white. Until Homeland Security develops the MLD -MotherLoad Lie Detector – beamed from a satellite that tests our brain waves and tracks our every transaction for digital anomalies, I can’t tell exactly who among us is racist. I have all I can handle just polling whether y’all believe LeBron James was treated unfairly by the media through the Center for Sports and Social Entrepreneurship: http://center4players.com.  But there are group dynamics so we do what we can to explain them.

Second, there is a dynamic of self-identification that affects our behavior. If I hate all Miami players because I am from Cleveland or Chicago or I just don’t suffer arrogance well from anyone, it does not make me a racist. Indeed some of my best friends are African Americans who have said, “Sorry Roger, nice article, but I am not a LeBron fan.”  They go on to articulate some of the same reasons many of you also expressed. It is entirely possible that a white player with LeBron’s exact same self-promotional strategy would have brought the same response – regardless of racial background. Hmmm – having trouble with the visual.

But if you have observed the cultural divide in this country among sports players, there’s probably a reason for having trouble picturing say, Jimmer Fredette duplicating the LeBron strategy. Why is that? Now there are some black players that if they were as coveted as LeBron, I can see with the colorful show. Why is that? I say it is mostly cultural, a commonality in expressions and attitudes. As the Temptations said, “The Way You Do the Things You Do.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve had a cultural divide. Long before LeBron was born, there was a far more arrogant and defiant transcendent athlete that caused fervor not too dissimilar from what we now experience with LeBron. In fact, LeBron is a monk by comparison. His name in the early 1960’s was Cassius Clay (now Muhammad Ali). I remember very clearly that his ways rubbed most of white America the wrong way with “I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” and many other verbal jabs that extolled his virtues and denigrated his opponents – and that was before he got his first world’s heavyweight championship.  In my neighborhood we loved it. We commonly revered him. We also knew and loved others that couldn’t box but talked the same game. We self-identified with them both as kindred spirits.

Without a value judgment of which way of expression is better or worse there is nonetheless a difference. The difference in perception between blacks and whites about such visible folks as Cassius and LeBron is largely cultural and generational.  We all have a perspective gained through our years of acculturation too subliminal for precise empirical understanding. Put simply, our perceptions are colored by our cultural influences (no pun intended- but I guess it works).

Some people will hear Dolly Parton sing a song she wrote, “I Will Always Love You” and prefer her country style. Others will wince when they hear Dolly, but love the same song when they hear Whitney Houston sing it in the movie, “Bodyguard”. Our ears, eyes and minds can perceive the same things differently. The country style, standing alone, is no more or less racist than the sultry soulful style of the then silver-throated Whitney.  For most, it’s not racial as much as cultural. In each instance, the listener used a cultural qualifier (“CQ”) to accept one and reject the other.

All that is foundation for my point about journalists and their professional integrity. Having CQ’s is fine in the privacy of our own ears. But a journalist is paid to choose words carefully for at least two reasons: (1) These are still the public air waves owned by us all and users only have a revocable privilege; and (2) By claiming to be journalists, they have an ethical duty to be objective. Accordingly, the journalist has the obligation to subrogate his personal CQ’s until he gets home. Then he can turn on Dolly and kick it with her and a cold one.

If 97% of the media has one brand of CQ’s, we are bound to get a one sided view.  The cultural competency and balance is snuffed out of the air space. And some NBA players may not get a fair shake from the predominant media because they don’t make the cut.

Our CQ’s also incorporate the people, places and things with which we self -identify. For some the self-identification is based on race, or religion, or gender preferences, or maybe the teams we choose to claim as our own. My observation is that we tend to have more compassion and forgiveness for people with whom we self-identify. I know it’s easier for me to forgive a family member for a mistake than an enemy. For those with whom we do not self-identify, we are more prone to see the negative and quicker to say “see I told you that’s how they are”.  It bears repeating that self-identification is not confined to the racial divide, but it can include it. And there are some that self-identify with LeBron because they root for the Miami Heat – end of story. Their posts and tweets seem to show more compassion, more willingness to say, “I know he’s not perfect, but he’s still my guy.”

So it should not be blasphemy to say people within this media cannot help but have some people they self-identify with, and others they don’t. I suspect most black players with a cultural disconnect don’t qualify.  Wouldn’t that also show up in their sports reporting?  That’s part of what I meant by saying a predominant media from one-sided CQ’s carries some “social baggage”.  And that’s why I said the media and majority of fans “see the same events quite differently in emphasis and expectation.”  For many, our views about race affect our CQ’s, and to that extent race is involved in how the media characterizes and editorializes about LeBron James.

Soon after the NBA season, one prominent ESPN basketball analyst noted some of LeBron’s challenges and errors, just as several others had done. Then he emphatically urged, “But these character assassinations have got to stop.”  It is not a coincidence that the analyst was Jalen Rose or that he was somewhat of a lone wolf in that plea. I suspect he was talking as much to his colleagues as to anyone else, though if I were him I would deny it. Still, his CQ’s were a little different. He was one of Michigan’s “Fab Five” that fell outside the then-existing CQ’s of major media and had some of that Cassius Clay-ish-ness. He was always articulate, and over time matured in his public persona while keeping cultural connectivity with his Detroit roots.

Rose’s comments regarding LeBron overall seem to have been among the more objective, a little more compassionate, and balanced. Not because he is an African American. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is an African American too but I suspect he’d have a different take. Rather, I think it is because Jalen’s perceptions are broad enough to see LeBron from more than one vantage point.  To ESPN’s credit, they hired him. I suspect ESPN too realized the need for balance in analysis – culturally.

This whole LeBron discussion reminds me of what I once told my wife after my late night out with blood thinning beverages of choice: “Honey, we all suffer from varying degrees of imperfection.” LeBron James is not perfect. Like me that night, a little compassion would have been a good thing.  When we found him short on humility, a better CQ balance among the thousands of our sports pundits would have produced a more balanced and objective analysis – and less over-the-top, year-long, jersey-burning, media-hyped rancor. If Jimmer Fredette was LeBron James and done the exact same things, would the media portrayal been the same? Hmmm.



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