What’s behind LeBron’s Instagram Stories mistake?
Is he being let off too easy? Or is there context to be considered?
Save for 45.8 million followers — approximately 20,000 of whom he gains daily — LeBron James is just your regular Instagram user. Injured Tuesday night in his Los Angeles Lakers’ victory over the Golden State Warriors, James will likely IG all of his rehab. As the most followed American athlete, James posts pictures, clowns his friends in the comments, occasionally misspells a word and generally uses Instagram’s Stories medium as his own personal creative studio.
Among other things, James’ Instagram is a uniquely powerful musical vehicle: Songs from artists like Drake, 50 Cent, T.I., Kendrick Lamar, Lil Wayne, Meek Mill, Nipsey Hussle and others are frequently presented to James’ massive audience. This is the same Instagram account that last week landed James in very hot water.
Is the water hot because of what LeBron quoted? Or also because LeBron, who also has 41.8 million followers at his @KingJames Twitter handle, is the most influential athlete in all of sports — one whose messages resonate in far bigger arenas than the ones he dominates for his day job? On and off the court, LeBron makes international news. He’s been an economic and cultural force since he was in high school. Today, he’s a cultural and political gatekeeper — at icon status. When posting, he speaks to more than a hundred million people (he has platforms beyond Twitter and IG), and James lives a version of The Truman Show. But, despite Avenger-like feats on the court, even this deep into a career, he is still human.
James was bound to slip up. And accountability on such a complex issue falls on both James and a media tasked with documenting his story even as he scribes his own. When he quoted lyrics on his Instagram centering on “Jewish money,” it was arguably the first true cultural miscalculation of his career. (Especially as, in retrospect, “The Decision” was not only a massive disruption but also an undeniable charitable and humanitarian grand slam.)
James has apologized, and so has the rapper James was quoting:
The Jewish people I know are very wise with there money so that’s why I said we been gettin Jewish money I never thought anyone would take offense I’m sorry if I offended everybody never my intention I love all people
— Saint Laurent Don (@21savage) December 25, 2018
The narrative surrounding James has already shifted to his groin injury. But questions do linger. How might James, as meticulous a cultural figure as there is in sports, learn from the mistake? And how much of the backlash was about James’ unprecedented power as an African-American influencer and global game-changer?
James took to his Instagram Stories on Dec. 21 to post several videos of himself listening to 21 Savage’s recent album, i am > i was. Savage, one of the more prolific and fascinating young artists in rap, is evolving. Early reviews of the album hail the East Atlanta artist as “better than he’s ever been.” James’ reactions to Savage’s cuts tended to agree. One LBJ IG story featured the NBA’s fifth-leading scorer of all time vibing out to the song “asmr.” The title is an allusion to autonomous sensory meridian response, which “describes a feeling of euphoric tingling and relaxation that can come over someone when they hear incredibly quiet sounds, such as whispering, clicking, and chewing.” The record contains the lyrics, which James reposted on the clip, We been gettin’ that Jewish money, everything is Kosher.
Darren Rovell, a sports business analyst for The Action Network who previously worked for ESPN, posted a screen grab to his Twitter calling out the offensive nature of James’ post. Rovell has 2.03 million followers. From there, pundits and news outlets pounced on James for the perceived lapse in judgment. James, who made a cameo in a 2009 episode of Entourage, was called out by show creator Doug Ellin (who is Jewish) on his Instagram, citing the historical trauma of the assertion.
There is the anti-Semitic financial stereotype that has been long attached to the Jewish community. There is also the rise in violence against American Jews that saw a 57 percent increase in 2017 alone — an inflation experts associate with the divisiveness of the current presidential administration. “Anti-Semitism has become normalized and harassment is a daily occurrence,” say authors Samuel Woolley and Katie Joseff. “The harassment, deeply rooted in age-old conspiracies … which alleges that an evil cabal of Jewish people have taken autocratic control of the globe … shows no signs of abating.”
James apologized after Sunday’s home loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. “Apologies, for sure, if I offended anyone. That’s not why I chose to share that lyric. I always post lyrics,” he said to ESPN. “That’s what I do. I ride in my car, I listen to great music, and that was the byproduct of that.” James said he, like 21 Savage, originally thought it was a compliment. “But obviously it wasn’t, through the lens of a lot of people. My apologies. It definitely was not the intent, obviously, to hurt anybody.” The NBA, on Christmas Eve, accepted James’ explanation.
The league office has been in contact with LeBron James about his social media post referencing "Jewish money," accepted his explanation that he made a mistake and the NBA will take no action, league source tells ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) December 24, 2018
Bigotry and discrimination, both in America and abroad, are stains the human race can never erase. Creating art about injustice is always complex, as are quoting and/or promoting art about it. Jay-Z, shortly after his 4:44 was released in 2017, found himself in a controversy similar to James’ recent one. In “The Story of O.J.,” Jay-Z raps, You wanna know what’s more important than throwing away money at the strip club?/ Credit/ You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it. “The Story of O.J.” was nominated in three prestigious Grammy categories: record of the year, best rap song and best music video.
While Jay-Z’s characterization of American Jews drew immediate condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League, the group ultimately said Jay’s history of speaking out against racism and anti-Semitism held more clout than the lyric. The Atlantic‘s Adam Serwer noted in 2017 that while the lyrics were “beneath” Jay-Z, “[Shawn] Carter is also drawing on an old tradition of using American Jews as a model of a downtrodden people who found success in America. Frederick Douglass predicted that just as Jewish people had ‘risen’ despite discrimination in Europe, ‘in like manner the Negro will rise in social scale.’ ”
Jay-Z himself responded to the claims in his September 2017 Rap Radar podcast sit-down. “Of course I know Jewish people don’t own all the property in the world,” he said. “I mean, I own things! It was an exaggeration.” He continued, “If even you, as the Jewish community, if you don’t have a problem with the exaggerations of the guy eating watermelon and all the things that was happening [in the video] … if you don’t have a problem with that, and that’s the only line you pick out, then you are being a hypocrite. I can’t address that in a real way. I got to leave that where it is.”
Did James fly too close to the sun by actually typing the lyrics out on his Instagram story? To some, he definitely did. And these rebuttals, without question, deserve attention and empathy. Every community has stereotypes about which it is rightfully sensitive — the black community included. Yet, within a suggestion that James is in favor of anti-Semitism is the choice to ignore the calls for unity he has made from his platforms for years, and ever more as his societal caché has expanded. James’ history is about inclusion over exclusion — a battle he’s taken to the front door of the Trump White House on more than one occasion. Given the racial climate of the moment, it’s fair to wonder if some (not all) of the reaction to James’ post isn’t more about the power of the man who posted it.
And now I’m like a major threat
‘Cause I remind you of the things you were made to forget …
— 2Pac, “Holler If Ya Hear Me”
As in almost any given week, there were a series of racial events last week that became fodder for social media conversation. In addition to the 21 Savage/LeBron situation, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s comments about international players being more skilled than American-born players struck a nerve. Cuban added that American players are more focused on dunking and “put[ting] together mixtapes,” an assertion that made his comments seem more rooted in a disdain for black culture within the NBA. Mavericks forward Harrison Barnes, for one, was offended by the remark.
Mavericks forward Harrison Barnes, co-MVP of the 2010 McDonald’s All-America Game, gave this statement to @TheUndefeated about Mavs owner Mark Cuban’s recent controversial comments: pic.twitter.com/plmj0cWnYF
— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpearsESPN) December 22, 2018
Before that controversy could finish marinating, a 2011 clip of HBO’s Talking Funny resurfaced, featuring Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais and Louis C.K. Rock, C.K. and Gervais used “n—–” freely while Seinfeld sat with them, visibly uncomfortable. Rock immediately came under fire for not only introducing the word into the discussion but also actively participating in the wildly abrasive clip. Seinfeld won wide praise, most likely for this comment: “I don’t find humor [in the word ‘n—–’]. Nor do I seek it.”
Imma just say .. Jerry Seinfeld is a real one. A legend
— Wale (@Wale) December 22, 2018
And in addition to his 21 Savage/IG Stories situation, James was also in the news last week for reasons not necessarily about what could be a potential fifth MVP season. The week began with, reportedly, several small-market NBA general managers enraged over James’ not-so-subliminal remarks about potentially landing superstar Anthony Davis as a teammate.
James shrugged off the backroom chatter, saying he’d love to play with any superstar and that Davis was one of many. And then Dec. 21, on James’ first-person interview series The Shop, his unfiltered thoughts on the NFL became the focal point of the episode. James praised NBA commissioner Adam Silver — who, for the sake of the conversation, is Jewish — for his willingness to allow players to utilize their platforms to speak about issues important to them. The NFL, James argued, doesn’t share the same viewpoint about players, whether they’re on or off the field. “In the NFL they got a bunch of old white men owning teams and they got that slave mentality,” the four-time MVP said. “And it’s like, This is my team. You do what the f— I tell y’all to do. Or we get rid of y’all.”
LeBron airing out NFL owners on #TheShopHBO 🔥
"In the NFL, they got a bunch of old white men owning teams and they got that slave mentality," pic.twitter.com/XLXNPZ8wkK
— The Man Who Sold The World (@LordBalvin) December 22, 2018
The triggers were, of course, “slave mentality.” This wasn’t the first time this year James’ feelings about whiteness made headlines either. In August, James said he experienced culture shock being around white people when he entered high school.
One argument says that James overreacted, that it is hypocritical for an athlete being paid millions of dollars to use such incendiary language. It’s not racism, it’s just how businesses operate, it is argued. Yet, given the NFL’s track record regarding issues of race in the era of Colin Kaepernick’s exile, James’ idea of the NFL’s corporate hierarchy, right or wrong, isn’t an uncommon one at the barbershop, dinner table, bar or any safe space where people, in particular black people, congregate.
And, while LeBron’s Instagram story caught steam, a report surfaced saying an unnamed Western Conference general manager referred to LeBron and agent Rich Paul in what could be seen as a remixed version of Phil Jackson’s infamous “posse” comments. “I’m not worried about James tampering to the media about [Anthony Davis],” the GM told Bleacher Report. “It’s that James and Paul are mafioso mob bosses of the NBA that’s the problem.”
And therein lies the crux of the matter. “People get caught up in bunches sometimes when they wish they could control what you say, and they can’t control me, at all,” LeBron said Dec. 21 before the controversy over his Instagram post. “And I play by the rules.”
They can’t control me. The allusion is to various team executives in this instance, but the phrase speaks also about the generational voice LeBron James has become. This is the defiance that sets him apart, that makes folks love him and makes folks angsty. LeBron may never surpass Michael Jordan in terms of the godlike aura he holds in many basketball circles. But where ’Bron stands alone, where he resides with membership in a club of one, is in the unrelenting power he brandishes while still holding the mantle of the best player in the world.
When he joined the Miami Heat eight years ago, James ushered in the age of player empowerment. “The Decision,” originally lambasted for the perceived selfishness of the then-25-year-old James and the same core group of friends he keeps near him today, completely shifted NBA power and culture. James isn’t the only one responsible for this freewheeling, free-dealing entertainment and socially conscious apex that the league currently benefits from financially and imagewise — but he is a conductor. Even at a stone’s throw away from 34, LeBron is still very much the straw that stirs the NBA’s global drink.
At the moment, James has content circulating on ESPN, ESPN+, HBO, Showtime and his own platform in Uninterrupted. His agent Rich Paul, the head of Klutch Sports, continues to construct an empire of his own aside from LeBron. Maverick Carter, James’ business manager, was recently named to Live Nation’s board of directors. James has his own public school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. LeBron’s move to Los Angeles was always understood as a resolution far beyond just basketball nirvana; that his palm prints are already in multiple sectors of Hollywood is undeniable. Seeds of an empire haven’t just been planted — they’re already in full bloom. Since James entered the league in 2003, his earnings have topped $765 million. Praise a man by the success he’s earned and the impact he’s made, but to truly understand the depths of a man’s reign, survey the enemies he keeps. There are specific people who root for James to exist in some less powerful way.
James has been a racial curriculum in particular since his decision to leave Cleveland eight years ago. “I just want you guys to see it also,” James said of some of his 2010 tweets. “To see what type of words that are said toward me and towards us as professional athletes. Everybody thinks it is a bed of roses and it’s not.” In that same year, a national ESPN poll showed 65 percent of black voters still viewed James favorably, as opposed to 32 percent of whites. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is forever canonized for his infamous Comic Sans-font letter that dripped with the language of racial betrayal (Cleveland was fined $100,000).
In addition, as James’ political, social and cultural voice has evolved, so too has the backlash. Shortly before the start of the 2017 NBA Finals, James’ Los Angeles’ home was spray-painted with “n—–” across the gate — an act some of James’ detractors pegged a hoax. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump publicly questioned LeBron’s intelligence. There’s Fox Sports analyst Clay Travis, who did the same this week after James’ Instagram story. Conservative media personality/Fox host Laura Ingraham‘s “shut up and dribble” segment is impetus for an entire documentary for James. And there’s Breitbart as well as other conservative pundits who’ve labeled James as divisive. There are well-populated social media hate groups. This is the same kid who spoke to Jay Bilas after his first nationally televised high school game, talking about “no pressure.”
16 years ago today, LeBron played his first ever game on national TV… and, in bigger news, Jay Bilas had magnificent hair. pic.twitter.com/eIm6LBGHP9
— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) December 12, 2018
The kind of impact James makes on the world is powerful. Power does elicit fear, and great power is only respected and embraced alongside the great responsibility that accompanies it. There’s no doubt James has learned a great deal from his very own Instagram story. About himself. About the forces both in his corner and across the canvas. What’s also clear is that James’ obsession to make the most of his agency in every facet of his life has him in never-before-seen territory for an athlete.
LeBron James in the fast break of life is far scarier than any of his moves at Staples Center. This scares a lot of people. As it should. Those kinds of victories come with far more pressure than that of raising another banner.