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Why, exactly, am I supposed to hate LeBron James?

One reason America isn’t liking LeBron James: His decision to announce his free agent decision on ESPN.

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One reason America isn’t liking LeBron James: His decision to announce his free agent decision on ESPN.

As a well-intentioned American, and as a committed follower of sports, I am, of course, prepared to hate LeBron James.

I mean, doesn't everyone? In this country, aren't most right-thinking Americans against inflation, eroding family values and the continuing success of Lady Gaga's musical career? And, of course, LeBron.

On the other hand, before James and the Evil Kingdom Tour come to town for tonight's exhibition game against the Orlando Magic, a couple of questions bear asking again.

Why, exactly, am I supposed to hate LeBron?

And why am I supposed to hate him so much?

This is not a matter of a bit of discontent that, admittedly, James has coming his way. This is a frothing, spewing, burning-the-jerseys and cursing-the-name level of anger that has not let up in the months since James turned up the heat in Miami. This is spiteful, hateful and unrelenting venom at a level we have rarely seen. It makes you wonder why some athletes — James, Alex Rodriguez — seem to outrage fans more than most.

So what has caused all this angst about LeBron?

He took another job. It has happened before.

He left Cleveland to move to Florida. That's not new, either.

He was the star of a completely awful TV show. Annoying, but have you watched TV lately?

To sum up: James has not used drugs like Rodriguez, and he has not killed puppies like Michael Vick, and he has not had a competitor whacked on the knee like Tonya Harding. He has not texted like Brett Favre has been accused of doing, and he hasn't sleazed his way across the PGA Tour like Tiger Woods, and he has not gone to prison for rape like Mike Tyson. And on and sadly on.

James did not break his contract with the Cavaliers. He did not invent free agency. There were flights out of Cleveland long before James took one. He is not the first athlete to want it all and then be disappointed when he was criticized for it.

Still, his reputation is in tatters, and his popularity has shrunk to the size of, say, Roger Clemens'. Somehow the rage seems out of proportion, magnified by the celebrity and the showboating and the wattage of the spotlight. It will take two titles, perhaps three, before James is beloved again.

So why does America seem so ticked off at LeBron?

1. He stacked the deck. With one signature across one contract, James changed the balance of power in the NBA. He gave the league a marquee team, and as such, a team to despise. In other words, he turned the Heat into the New York Yankees.

It isn't as if this hasn't happened before. Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal all found their way to Los Angeles. Remember when Deion Sanders went to the Dallas Cowboys?

To many, however, LeBron's departure from Cleveland felt wrong. It felt disloyal. It felt like betrayal. (In Miami, it also felt like a grand idea.)

On the other hand, do you remember how the Cavs obtained James to start with? They lost games. Lots and lots of games, in just the right year to lose them, and won the draft lottery. It wasn't as if they discovered James and taught him how to dribble.

2. He made rivals jealous. You betcha. There isn't a team in the NBA that wouldn't accept the scorn if it meant James was wearing its uniform.

3. He mentioned racism. After polls showed that James' popularity had fallen more with white fans than black ones, James and his manager said on CNN they thought racism played a part in the criticism. James has released offensive Twitter messages he has received.

Let's be frank here. In this country, it is unwise to ever dismiss racism. Plenty of it is still around. But the charge doesn't seem to fit here. For most of James' career, he has been wildly popular. It is not as if the fans recently discovered he is African-American. As Charles Barkley has said, the charge of racism is "just ridiculous.''

More to the point, I think we have elitism at play. James, the player, was dictating to the owners, to the networks, to the world. It is easy to wonder if LeBron knows that his "King James'' moniker is just a nickname.

4. He starred in that stupid TV show to announce his decision. It was a horrible idea from the beginning, part reality show and part mystery theater. It was absurd for a network to allow the only question that mattered — Where are you going? — to be saved for the end like a Final Jeopardy category.

Bad show, bad idea.

5. He exposed the ugly truth. More than anything, this is why I think James — and for that matter, A-Rod — are so unpopular. Together they helped to demonstrate that professional sports isn't always what you want it to be. Sometimes it's about greed, and sometimes it's about arrogance, and sometimes it's about business.

You know what fans want? They want players to be as dedicated to their team as they are. They want an athlete to think as much of them as they think of him.

They don't want to think about long-term contracts or marketability or of an athlete's best chance to pad his resume. When James announced he was moving his throne to another kingdom, he wasn't just rejecting a team and a city. He was rejecting the fans. He was refusing to love back in order to get the perfect circumstance and the perfect teammates, and still, he talked about how loyal he was as he was leaving. (Rodriguez, on the other hand, has always been about the most money, but he keeps talking about how only winning matters.)

And thus the outrage. That is different, too. There have never been more ways for a fan to express his displeasure.

In the end, King James got everything he wanted. Right or wrong, fans seem intent on giving him every bit of scorn they have. But "hate"? Really? That seems like too strong a reaction. My advice? Settle for "annoyed.'' After all, it worked with King Edward II.

Why, exactly, am I supposed to hate LeBron James? 10/21/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 21, 2010 9:56pm]
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