Look, I don’t really like or admire him either.
Lebron James is currently one of the most reviled figures in sports. Whether you use radio, print, blogs, or Comic Sans, if you are a sports fan outside of Miami you have probably taken at least a few minutes out of the past week to do two things: dislike Lebron, and revel in his defeat (not merely, we should note, the victory of the Dallas Mavericks).
I want to challenge you on that.
Why do we so dislike Lebron? After all, it is actually pretty difficult to challenge his actions of the last year on a moral basis.
Yes, he left the team that drafted him and relied on him. But he played out his full contract without significant whining or complaining. He’s really on much better moral ground than Carmelo Anthony or Allen Iverson, whose whining and complaining about their situations forced trades their teams would not have wanted otherwise. And yet somehow we don’t hate the Knicks (or some random Turkish team) like we hate the Heat.
Yes, he hurt a lot of feelings when he left Cleveland. But he’s never been accused of rape, like Kobe Bryant, or domestic violence, like Jason Kidd. And yet the sports world mostly forgave Kobe before those accusations were answered, and we certainly didn’t see widespread hatred for Kidd in this series.
Yes, he showed some disloyalty to his home state. But that doesn’t compare to the massive disloyalty displayed by Tiger Woods toward his wife and family. And you can’t tell me the sports world isn’t already rooting for him to start stacking up major wins again.
The fact is, contrary to Charles Barkley’s fears, we don’t honestly want role models. We want gods.
Perhaps more specifically, we want Olympic heroes. We want figures who are admired because they push the boundaries of human possibility, because they challenge the limitations of our physiques, and because we are excited by those whose athletic endeavors seem to reach levels of transcendence above the dirt and grime of normal human existence. The ancient Greeks had their stories, their Illiads and Odysseys, their myths and legends. We have sports.
Don’t believe me? Tell me whether we want the following things from our favorite athletes.
1. Takes on great odds without too much assistance.
2. Is humbly loyal to his (or her) roots.
3. Values hard work and those who work hard.
4. Displays extreme dedication to their craft.
5. Appreciates the history of their endeavor and humbly seeks their place in that history.
6. Shows creativity and intelligence in their endeavor when it is most needed.
7. Comes through in the most difficult of circumstances (i.e. Clutch play in crunch time)
8. Accepts the role of leadership among their peers.
9. Reaches great heights of accomplishment, both in numbers and in victory (specifically, in a championship).
The fascinating thing here is that within one year Lebron James – despite being the most physically gifted basketball player since Michael Jordan (at least) – seemed to violate almost every single one of the items above that we use as a template for greatness in our sports heroes. His actions seem to us disloyal, weak, cheap, and self-serving. His play this year has seemed to capitalize on weakness and fold under pressure, while allowing someone else to take the reigns of responsibility.
Now look, I appreciate all of this. I will likely never be a fan of Lebron James, and will tend to cheer for the success of others who better exemplify what I want from an athletic hero.
But I think we as Christians must be very, very careful about our vitriol toward a very young man who was given everything he ever wanted and has had very little strong guidance in his life. This is not a man on a rampage against God, or a man who treats women like property, or a person dedicated to injuring opposing players. He certainly has his fair share of overconfidence and pride, but that’s not really in short supply in the NBA.
My fear is that while watching sports, Christians desire Olympic heroes more than hearts that honor God. We value achievement and celebration of human spirit above faithfulness and a sense that this is not our home. We demand victory, along with the rest of the world, because we desire to vicariously live through our athletes and view ourselves atop the Tower of Babel.
Lebron has a lot of growing up to do, nobody can argue that point. So far, he seems to be a sad story of incredible potential without enough direction. He needs to find wisdom.
But friends, let’s be careful to love what is good, to hate what is evil, and to have compassion for a world lost in selfishness and rebellion against God. Let’s be careful to praise actions that honor God and not promote virtues that have nothing to do with the life He desires for us. And let’s celebrate sports with joy, but without hatred toward those who are merely trying to find their way. Perhaps then, we’ll finally be able to back away and see that the great danger of pride finds its home not in Lebron, but in ourselves.