He’s reigned as the King of Basketball for the better part of a decade, a hardwood maestro possessed of the highest on-court IQ ever. But his off-court accomplishments—creating a public school for at-risk children in his hometown of Akron, presiding over a large foundation that raises millions for charity, financing a wing of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, speaking out in support of Black Lives Matter, to name a few—are even more impressive. If all that weren’t enough, he’s a devoted family man married to his high school sweetheart whose parenting clips go viral. LeBron James is the best ambassador the NBA has ever had, which makes his past week all the more disappointing.
The trouble began on Friday, with the latest edition of his HBO talk show The Shop.
While LeBron’s “slave mentality” comments about NFL owners grabbed all the headlines—even if he was pretty spot-on—the more troubling portion of the episode came later, when the musical artists Mary J. Blige and Nas were welcomed onto the program.
Always one to wear her heart on her sleeve, the “Queen of Hip Hop Soul” opened up to LeBron, co-host Maverick Carter and guests about women’s empowerment, and how it’s inspired her musically.
“I’ve been on [women’s empowerment] since I was a kid, because in my neighborhood where I grew up at, they were always being abused. I’ve never seen a woman treated right other than my grandmother, and I always say that I wanted to save them, I wanted to help them, because I couldn’t take how they were being treated,” Blige explained.
“When you grow up in an environment like that, you become that environment,” she added. “So I became that abused woman; I became that woman that wasn’t treated right, and that woman that didn’t treat myself right, so I used the music to help me get free.”
Cut to Nas, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.
The optics couldn’t have been worse: a survivor of abuse pouring out her soul amid a coterie of powerful men, one of whom was credibly accused of violently abusing his ex-wife earlier this year. That hundreds of eyes, from producers to network execs to LeBron himself, saw nothing wrong with this scene speaks volumes about men’s blind spot vis-à-vis toxic masculinity.
Then on Sunday, King James kicked up a fuss when he posted the following message to his Instagram: “We been getting that Jewish money, Everything is kosher.”
The words, lyrics from 21 Savage’s rap tune “ASMR,” were interpreted as being anti-Semitic, and LeBron issued an immediate apology. “Apologies, for sure, if I offended anyone,” James told ESPN following his Lakers’ loss to the Grizzlies. “That’s not why I chose to share that lyric. I always [post lyrics]. That’s what I do. I ride in my car, I listen to great music, and that was the byproduct of it. So I actually thought it was a compliment, and obviously it wasn’t through the lens of a lot of people. My apologies. It definitely was not the intent, obviously, to hurt anybody.”
Now, do I think LeBron is an anti-Semite? Nope. As a teenager, one of his first major influences was Keith Dambrot, a Jewish fella who coached James’ AAU ball at the Akron Jewish Community Center; he’s been spiritually advised by the Israeli Rabbi Yishayahu Yosef Pinto; and has spoken about his desire to visit Israel. Nor am I “starting to get worried about LeBron James,” as the NBA’s resident alarmist, Stephen A. Smith, bellowed this morning on ESPN. LeBron James is the most-scrutinized player in NBA history, and has held up remarkably well under that microscope (when the only “controversy” in your career is “The Decision,” that’s really saying something). He’s a great role model for kids, and as such, shouldn’t be co-signing bad men or broadcasting questionable material to his 45.8 million Instagram followers.
The King can—and will—do better.