LeBron James did something this weekend that was undeniably offensive. On his Instagram, he posted the words, “We been getting that Jewish money. Everything is Kosher.” The words came from a rap lyric, but that didn’t matter to me. If a white athlete drops the n-word on social media and says, “Hey, it was from a rap lyric,” that would still be offensive to most of us.
Then James gave what seemed like a classic “if” apology: “Apologies, for sure, if I offended anyone.” Those are maddening. They feel like non-apology apologies, putting the onus on the offended—like slapping somebody across the face and saying “I’m sorry if you thought that was painful.”
I assumed James would not be suspended, and fining him would seem like a weird punishment in this case: a Jewish commissioner taking away an African-American athlete’s money because the athlete said the Jews have so much money. So there would probably be no punishment at all. That annoyed me, too.
When you think about a league that proudly booted racist Donald Sterling (who, admittedly, had plenty of other unseemly attributes), and prides itself on social justice and community awareness … how, on any level, is it OK to let James do what he did?
Then I had a thought that was so simple, I am almost embarrassed to type it. But here goes.
Imagine LeBron James was sitting at your kitchen table.
What would you say?
You might scream, say you were offended and disgusted, and tell him this is a double-standard—that Jews deserve the same respect he expects other groups to receive, and offensive is offensive, no matter who the offended group is. You might say he claims to be the champion of those who need a champion, of disenfranchised African-American kids all over the country, and that’s wonderful, but he hurt his causes here.
He might say what he said Sunday: “I actually thought it was a compliment.”
Maybe it sounded weak when he told that to the media, like an athlete trying to Houdini his way out of a public blunder by minimizing the intent and making his intentions seem pure.
But it might sound different at your kitchen table. It might sound sincere. So you might ask him why he thought it was a compliment.
And then maybe he could tell you what you already knew, but had not been thinking: he is a kid from Akron who grew up with nothing, who had to scrounge just to eat, and who did not just want to be a great basketball player but was determined to build a business empire. James has taken a greater interest in that than any superstar athlete in memory. Magic Johnson loved investments, and Michael Jordan was the endorsement king, and Kobe Bryant built a company for creatives after he retired, but James, from a young age, wanted a fortune and the power that comes with it.
He could talk about LRMR and Klutch Sports and his “The LeBrons” animated series and his “Uninterrupted” video and podcast network and that series that is all over ESPN now …he could tell you that he and his colleagues aspire to be business powerhouses.
Whatever you think of this, it is his aspiration. So you might see why “We been getting that Jewish money” probably really is a compliment in his mind.
And of course, it’s still not an acceptable comment to make, or to repeat. So then you might feel obligated to explain why.
You might tell him that historically—and we’re talking thousands of years here—words like this have been used to paint Jews as nefarious, selfish, and people who only look out for their own kind. The implication is almost never “The Jews have all the money, and look at all the charitable work they do,” or “Jews historically place great value on education, and they have prospered as a result.” It’s: “The Jews have the money and they use it to control the world, and doesn’t that piss you off?”
You could tell him about Shylock, the ruthless moneylender in William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”
You could explain that this kind of thinking was used to justify, among other things, the Holocaust.
You could say that it might sound like a compliment to him, but it’s the kind of pseudo-compliment that has been used to diminish and even kill people.
I think LeBron James—who has a photographic memory but has had his intelligence insulted repeatedly, a self-made financial monolith, a man who didn’t know his father but has been told he won the genetic lottery—would understand. I think he would feel genuinely sorry, and he would not say something like this about Jews again, and he probably would not hear that song the same way again, and he would not have to be suspended or fined to get the message, and he would get up from your kitchen table, thank you for the talk, and go back to his family and have a Merry Christmas.