LeBron James and Maverick Carter offered that as a partial explanation for the negative publicity he's gotten this summer. I don't think anyone's gone the race route on this yet (besides Jesse Jackson), but what do you know? Here we are.
Yesterday on CNN's Rick's List, Soledad O'Brien had a piece on James and Carter. From the transcript:
O'BRIEN (voice-over): But those deals were overshadowed by this summer's decision and negative headlines which seemed to tarnish LeBron James, the athlete, and the brand.
CARTER: It's just about control and not doing it the way it's always been done or not looking the way that it always looks.
O'BRIEN (on camera): Do you think there's a role that race plays in this.
JAMES: I think so at times. It's always, you know, a race factor.
CARTER: It definitely played a role in some of the stuff coming out of the media, things that were written, for sure.
Someone activate the Whitlock-Signal!
It'd be easy enough to dismiss this by pointing you towards one of the more succinct criticisms of James, and daring you to find any racial undertones. But it's probably instructive to deal with this now, because it's inevitable. In America, money and power and sports can't help but be intertwined with race, going back to Jack Johnson and earlier. Pretending it doesn't exist at all, even in specific cases where it might not, doesn't help anybody.
There are ways to deal with race in sports well; Les Bowen had an excellent column on Michael Vick yesterday. And there are ways to do it poorly; LeBron James saying it was a factor, and then leaving it at that. (In fairness to James and Carter, this was in response to a yes/no question, and not something they brought up on their own.)
Of course there's a racial undercurrent to free agency. Not for nothing did Curt Flood liken the reserve clause to slavery. Not for nothing do fans criticize players (mostly black millionaires) for seeking big money, while giving a pass to owners (mostly white billionaires) for seeking to save money.
But LeBron James is different. No one hates him for screwing over Dan Gilbert, who comes off totally unsympathetic after his petulant open letter. If LeBron James is one of the most hated athletes in the country, it's because he's seen as selfish and out of touch.
And not understanding why people hate him after The Decision is probably more harmful to his image than The Decision itself. It's not because James is black; it's because he's a celebrity, raised in a bubble, surrounded only by admirers and yes-men, and honestly doesn't have a clue why people wouldn't like him.
You know who creates an enemy list? Someone so caught up in themselves, they truly believe they do no wrong. And a symptom of that is looking for superficial excuses for the public's scorn. We know LeBron thinks, in his heart of hearts, that anyone bashing him is just a hater, someone petty or jealous who can't possibly have legitimate reasons. Now, perhaps, we know he's willing to chalk some of the hate up to racism. It's easier to dismiss criticism as the product of a biased mind rather than flirt with the idea that there's something to it.
Which isn't to say there aren't some people relying on the basest stereotypes to fuel their hatred of LeBron James. But chalking it all up to that, instead anything he might have done to provoke censure, is just going to make him more hated. More proof that LeBron James just doesn't get it.