It’s hard for me to think of a piece that I’ve agreed with more vigorously, this year, than this piece by Andrew Sharp on how annoying both Lebron James haters and Lebron James defenders are. And for more than just his take on the Heat and Lebron, but for how this dynamic plays out in so much of our culture. Here’s Sharp being… sharp:
That’s what happens with LeBron. I do it, too. We all take on this smug, sarcastic tone in LeBron discussions, because anyone criticizing him as a player is obviously wrong, and thanks to Facebook comments and Twitter mentions, it’s easy to find examples to make the backlash seem a lot more serious than it is.
It’s turned into this weird inversion of the outrage cycle, where there are more people outraged at haters than there actually are real, intelligent people who think LeBron sucks. We talk about how wrong the LeBron critics are, but I don’t know if LeBron’s had a real, credible critic in 24 months. (Skip [Bayless] is in his own category. That is performance art.)
The idiots are bad, but the smart people who take them seriously might be even more unbearable. This happens on Twitter constantly, and it trickles down to how we all view LeBron.
It’s gotten to the point where you can’t criticize LeBron for anything. You can’t say that LeBron’s cramps were obviously bad enough for him to leave the game, but, man, he sure was dramatic about the whole thing. You’re obviously ignoring everything he’s done to make his team great, and you’re part of the problem, and why does everyone hate LeBron so much, don’t people realize he’s never gotten a fair shake?
Personally, I recognize that James is a transcendent talent and a great player in every sense. I also personally have a hard time enjoying his game, in part because he’s just so good; he’s like a remorseless basketball death robot. My failure to find much joy in his game isn’t the same as not appreciating his game, or in doubting his greatness. I also don’t root for him, because I’m not a fan of his or his team. And what Lebron’s defenders have consistently failed to respect is the natural right for sports fans to like and dislike which players and teams they want to. Yes, there’s a lot of over-the-top, stupid, fundamentally incorrect criticism of Lebron, Chris Bosh, and the Heat. But if you’re getting on Spurs fans for making fun of Lebron for getting cramps, you’re getting on fans for being fans. Fans make fun of the other team’s guys! That’s how it works! And in general, sports fans don’t root for perceived favorites. Neutral fans pull for the underdog. If you’re complaining about that, you’re misunderstanding human nature.
And James has a lot of unforced errors. It’s not just the Decision or the petulant post-2011 Finals press conference that Sharp mentions. It’s saying that he could win the scoring title every year if he chose, which in a league with Kevin Durant, I’m not at all sure is true. It’s complaining about how he was robbed for Defensive Player of the Year in the 2012-2013 season by Marc Gasol. It’s degrading a Bulls ball boy for no reason other than that he could. It’s constantly complaining about his legacy, about how he doesn’t get enough respect, about how people should love him more. The thing is that even when his complaints are correct, it doesn’t nothing to help him publicly. It just makes people like him less. And it’s remarkable that, after 10 years in the league, he apparently still doesn’t have people in his camp to pull him aside and tell him that it’s not helping. Which, again, doesn’t discount what kind of basketball player Lebron James is and what he’s accomplished. I think it’s premature to call him one of the five best players already, but if you want to make the case that he’s already top ten, I wouldn’t argue too hard.
But Sharp is also right to say that this is part of a bigger phenomenon, which is what I was trying to get at with my post about Deadspin the other day. And it’s the way in which liking things seems to have become totally indivisible from disliking people who like other things. Everything that we like, it seems, has to function as a means through which we distinguish ourselves from other people– tackier, less interesting, more annoying people. Maybe it’s a matter of sneering down at rubes, maybe it’s a matter of raging up at pointy-headed elites, maybe it’s just Yooks vs. Zooks, but sharing what we like now seems less important than sharing who we don’t like. It’s depressing and exhausting.