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LeBron and the Collectivist Mentality

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07/10/2010

I propose that there’s a difference between bigotry and racism. Bigotry simply means you don’t like a particular group, e.g., “I hate those filthy Klingon bastards.” Racism is a subset of collectivism; it’s a set of beliefs about how you expect different groups to behave within the social order. Not every chattel slave-master, I’d imagine, hated Africans, but they clearly believed there was a “proper place” for these individuals, and any failure to conform to such expectations justified, in the racist’s mind, actions to compel such conformance.

My subject today isn’t slavery, however, but LeBron James, a 25-year-old professional basketball player. James is certainly no slave; he recently left the Cleveland Cavaliers and agreed to join the Miami Heat as a free agent where he’ll earn millions of dollars. Still, James is the ongoing target of one of the most vehement public racism campaigns in recent memory. And when I say racism, I don’t mean he’s being targeted because he’s African-American. That type of racism is generally taboo. James is a professional athlete, which is one of the few groups the mainstream press not only condones racism against, but also actively promotes.

You might say it’s ridiculous to label “professional athletes” as a racial group. But racial groups are not exclusively determined by genetic characteristics like skin color. Most religious and cultural groups are defined by voluntary participation. Professional athletes certainly constitute a racial-cultural group.

LeBron James grew up in poverty, raised by a teenage single mother. In high school, the press took notice of his considerable basketball skills, which ultimately enabled him to forego college basketball and enter the NBA directly. The NBA — which bizarrely assigns talented new players based on random chance — sent him to the Cleveland Cavaliers, near James’s hometown of Akron, Ohio. This created a presumption, both within Cleveland and the larger national press corps, that James was Cleveland’s “savior,” a man who would not only avenge the city’s past sports losses, but somehow help revive the economically stagnant region.

It didn’t come to pass. James’s Cavaliers teams enjoyed regular-season success but never won an NBA championship. And for some reason, James’s mere presence did not magically undo decades of disastrous government intervention in Ohio’s economy. James simply went out every night and provided the basketball-entertainment the customers paid to see.

James clearly came to the realization that he would not attain all his own professional goals in Cleveland. When his contract expired, he listened to offers from other teams. Ultimately, he decided to join two of his talented friends, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, in Miami, where Wade won an NBA championship a few years earlier. It’s the type of personal business decision people make every day without incident. Every actor in the marketplace seeks his own ends through chosen means. James decided the best way to seek a championship was playing with his friends.

The media — and certainly Cleveland fans — disagreed. A wave of rage overcame newspapers, television, and the Internet (which, luckily, is accustomed to such events). A number of consensus talking points quickly emerged: First and foremost, he “abandoned” his hometown; it wasn’t leaving Cleveland so much as how he left; he had the nerve to announce his decision in a primetime television special; he’s a “coward” for not leading a team in Cleveland, or even New York or Chicago, but joining a group of stars in Miami; and so on.

The faux-expletive that appears in almost all anti-James screeds is “narcissism.” He’s a narcissist! The press seems to think this is a fancy synonym for “selfish,” which is what they really mean. Calling James “selfish,” however, doesn’t quite have enough stinging power. Calling him a “narcissist” implies there’s something ethically (or mentally) wrong with him. I’ve certainly heard no shortage of media types explain James’s tortured internal psyche — despite the fact they’ve never met or talked to him.

More importantly, the “narcissism” charge is a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black. Narcissism is the foundation upon which most of the press corps is built. Just read this Bill Simmons column on ESPN.com. Sportswriters and sports pundits exist to place themselves and their needs at the center of every discussion. It’s about their thoughts, their emotions, and their needs. The notion that athletes might have any thoughts, emotions, or needs of their own is treated with derision and contempt.

It’s laughable to accuse James of narcissism when he turned down a chance to stay in Cleveland, where he’d be worshipped by locals and applauded by the press, to go to Miami, a less sports-driven market where he knows he’ll share the spotlight with two other players. That’s pretty much the antithesis of narcissism. As for the notion that James’s decision-making itself was narcissistic — holding a prime-time special, et al. — that again was an example of narcissism by the media, not James. By all accounts, ESPN officials approached James’s representatives about a “decision” special months ago. The press as a whole already hyped James’s decision without any prompting from him. Smartly, he decided to capitalize on the process for his own interests, agreeing to an exclusive ESPN special in exchange for a portion of the advertising revenue (which he donated to his preferred charity). Again, this was a fairly unremarkable business decision.

The criticism of James really boils down to, “He failed to meet our pre-conceived expectations about how to behave.” The one talking point that brings this home is the bizarre idea that he’s diminished his “legacy” or “greatness” by joining forces with two other All-Stars in their prime rather then competing against them for championships. “Michael Jordan never joined his competition, he beat them,” is a refrain I’ve read from several hacks. (Gee, I wonder how many sportswriters were FTC merger-review lawyers in a former life.) There’s no reason that James should be bound to the storylines of former athletic greats, but of course, the press deals in storylines — controlling them is how they purportedly provide value to the market.

This line of argument also suggests James should have made an emotional decision not supported by rational economic analysis. (And I don’t mean the type of “analysis” Tyler Cowen offered). I don’t claim to be a basketball expert, but from the outside looking in, it strikes me that James simply believed he couldn’t win a championship in Cleveland. Perhaps the best evidence of this was Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s remarkable screed — later backed by an Associated Press interview and a comparison to Benedict Arnold — labeling James an ungrateful traitor to the Cavaliers and the city of Cleveland. I won’t reprint Gilbert’s ravings here, but suffice to say, it’s the sort of flaming email that would get a mid-level manager fired on the spot, to say nothing of a CEO.

It’s also notable that just after this past NBA season, Gilbert fired his general manager and head coach. There wasn’t a peep from the press about “disloyalty” to the fired executives — even though they were part of the most successful run in franchise history — and no suggestion that such institutional instability might affect a key employee’s decision to leave.

Once again, we’re talking about a fairly routine business situation. We’ve all known or worked for toxic bosses who caused valuable employees to leave for better-managed firms. By all accounts that’s what James did. He left Gilbert’s dysfunctional Cavaliers for a Miami franchise run by Pat Riley, one of the most successful coach-executives in NBA history. (I also find it interesting that Gilbert amassed his fortune in mortgage lending and casinos, while Miami owner Micky Arison built his in cruise ships.)

Now I started this post by discussing racism. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that any criticism of James or his decision-making is ill founded or racist. I’ve heard reasonable basketball minds differ as to whether James might be closer to a championship in Chicago or New York. Such debate is normal and fun. What I’m critical of is the collective consciousness of the press harping on nonsensical talking points that seek to portray James as somehow antisocial or mentally unbalanced. I believe such criticism originates from the false belief that professional athletes like James must conform their behavior to social norms that the critics themselves would not adhere to. When you single out a particular group of individuals and demand they act in a way that differs from the rest of society, that is straight-up, no-holds-barred racism.

We’re not just talking about James and his free agency. Racism also drives statist acts like the drug-testing hysteria and the recent Tiger Woods media circus. At its core, there’s a belief that professional athletes are entitled to a lesser degree of rights and social respect simply because of who they are. The rationalization is always, “Well, they make a lot of money, so they owe us,” but choosing to offer one’s services in the marketplace does not justify racism. And while I wouldn’t compare the criticism of James to a defense of chattel slavery, I would note that both are the progeny of a common ancestor in collectivism. The moment you stop judging individuals and start falling back on preconceived notions of what social groups exist and how they should behave, you’ve abandoned the ethical foundations of libertarianism and free markets.

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