LeBron James Miami Heat: Will His Statement On Race Haunt Him This Season?

Robert FeltonAnalyst IIOctober 22, 2010

NEW ORLEANS - OCTOBER 13:  Lebron James #6  of the Miami Heat sits on the bench during the game against the New Orleans Hornets at the New Orleans Arena on October 13, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Had it not been for the ramped up hysteria over "The Decision," LeBron James' honest response to an admittedly disputatious inquiry about race could have been a springboard that compelled some to discuss race or at least why it is so divisive a subject mater.

However, after James told CNN's Soledad O'Brien that "I think so, at times. It's always, you know, a race factor." He unleashed a hailstorm of criticism from many of his most ardent critics.

 Some accused him of blaming race for his problems, or simply looking to scapegoat his way out of his public relations nightmare. Of course, that was before the ugly, racists tweets that James released, but even that will not sway those already  casting him as the boogie man under the bed and one of the most "hated athletes of all time," according to some polls.

As the 2011 Miami Heat season officially begins on Oct. 26, there are questions about whether James can rebuild his shattered image. Some have argued, rather hyperbolically, that he is forever tarnished for "using race as an excuse," or "playing the race card" that was already maxed out.

One question though that I had a problem wrapping my mind around was:

Why were James' offenses apparently so unforgivably vile that he would face the wrath of every road arena in the league this season, but yet Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Rothlisburger, whose assault allegation led to his six games suspension for violating NFL personal conduct policies, is still not considered subject to the type of ostracizing that James may face this year?

What about Eli Manning's slap in the face to the San Diego Chargers fans for refusing to play for the team that drafted him and pouting until he was eventually traded to New York? Why is he not viewed as the poster child for the spoiled arrogant athlete?

In assessing this question, I found a compelling theory from ESPN sportswriter J.A. Adande, who described the LeBron backlash as a form of "tribalism rather than racism."

Accepting indiscretions of white athletes, while reacting to those of black athletes with more critical eyes does not suggest racism, but perhaps does suggest a lack of ability to relate to those from culturally different backgrounds and mindsets.

Shielded within the prism of athletic grace and ability, LeBron James is not a man who must be looked upon discriminately by fans, because his function (as sports entertainer) fills a specific need. When James goes up for a one-hand tomahawk dunk, those outside of his tribe are not thinking about what it's like to be a wealthy, successful and gifted black athlete and how is it different from being an equally successful white athlete?

All they thinking about is: He's helping my team win.

However, when forced to confront his indiscretions, one must deal with the fact that the differences between James and those without the experience of being African-American plays a role in the reception toward him. Viewed through this fresh lens, free of his on the court exploits, it becomes more difficult to objectively judge him if you cannot see some of yourself reflected in him. 

Empathy is hard to feel for someone outside of your personal realm of experience and this cross-cultural truth lies at the heart of how fundamentally different James is viewed.

Manning can be forgiven by his base for the same reason James can be forgiven by those with whom he shares a cultural kinship: Within the same tribe, those subconsciously see Manning as the same All-American Ole Miss star that is like their son or daughter. Meanwhile, James can be embraced by many in the African-American community because despite his acknowledged flaws, that shared ethnic identity provides a different context to his controversial admission.

Perhaps some feel as though, considering his $14.5 million salary with the Heat this year, magazine photo shoots, endorsements and rabid fan base throughout the globe that somehow he must live in a bubble completely impervious to any form of racial inequality, and because of his "transcendance" and fame is only using it as a crutch by mentioning it as a possibility.

One of the lost aspects of James' ESPN "publicity stunt" was the fact that the $2.5 million proceeds were donated to the Boys and Girls Club. Critics of the "Decision" weren't impressed, as they used it as further evidence of his grandstanding self-worship.

But I viewed the gesture with different eyes. I know the importance of Boys-and-Girls Clubs in Chicago and how in some parts of of the city, young people, that look a lot like myself and James, simply don't have access to camps, after school programs and community arts workshops.

Maybe this was the rationale for his words, because he was acknowledging that while he is a successful performer in one arena, his kinship to the plethora of youth whose lives have not turned out as prosperously still shapes the way he views the inequalities that still exists across disparate social-cultural tribes.

My belief is that if the Miami Heat find success this season, he will cease to be the outsider that he is viewed as now and once again become the dynamic force whose differences are deemphasized through his athletic gifts.

Right now though, to those on the outside, he is just a man from another tribe.