The King made The Decision: Let The Hating begin

Once viewed with considerable admiration by a region and even by many professional basketball fans in opposing cities, LeBron James may soon discover a world not full of love. Indeed, psychological principles suggest that "LeBron Hating" may not only become a new sport in Northeast Ohio (certainly to be expected), but perhaps across the entire nation.

In the movie The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent remarked of Batman's future: "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." Perhaps this observation applies to sports superstars as much as it does to superheroes (or at least to sports superstars who can't win championships).

Now let's turn to some of the psychological principles that may make LeBron Hating the next chapter in the evolution of one of basketball's greatest talents. First I'll address Cleveland fans, but afterwards I'll focus on why LeBron Hating may spread nationwide (except perhaps to South Florida).

Cleveland Hate

It doesn't take a Ph.D. to know that being stabbed in the back hurts. Thus, the idea that Cleveland sports fans may grow to hate LeBron James (who raised the town's Cavaliers from obscurity to perennial contenders) is not at all surprising. As the media perpetually reminds America, Cleveland's history is a series of slaps to its face economically (e.g., high unemployment), historically (e.g., the Cuyahoga River catching fire), and culturally (e.g., voted worst city to live in the USA).

Losing a sports icon and celebrity like LeBron James will reportedly cost the community millions of dollars and certainly reduce the likelihood that Cleveland will experience a sports champion any time soon (i.e., the last championship in Northeast Ohio was the Cleveland Indians' World Series win in 1948 -- we'll ignore a pre-Super Bowl era championship by the Cleveland Browns in the 1960s). Indeed, ESPN named Cleveland America's most tortured sports city just a few years ago.

However, because James was so strongly associated with Northeast Ohio and emphasized his roots as "the boy from Akron," the hatred from Clevelanders may be especially pronounced. In social psychology, research has studied this phenomenon, termed the Black Sheep Effect. That is, although we typically love members of our own groups (ingroups) more than members of other groups, when an ingroup member does something unwanted, that individual (i.e., the Black Sheep) can become more hated than outsiders who perform the same undesirable actions. Thus, because James played up his Northeast Ohio roots so strongly over the years (e.g., accepting MVP trophies in his hometown, continuing to live in the region), it will simply magnify how much Clevelanders can grow to hate "one of their own" for stabbing them in the back.

In addition to the Black Sheep Effect, James's leaving Northeast Ohio will represent a blow to the region's collective self-esteem. And considerable research shows that when one's self-esteem is reduced, people lash out at others and denigrate them in order to feel better about the self. Thus ironically, LeBron's leaving not only will trigger hatred toward him (i.e., the loss), but the resulting blow to the region's self-esteem will make putting him down a compelling response to restore self-esteem (which was diminished by his leaving) -- voilà, a self-reinforcing loop!

Hate may not be reserved for Clevelanders

Although predicting that Cavs fans may "fall out of love with James" for taking his talents to the glitzy world of South Beach may not seem surprising, there are a number of reasons why LeBron Hating might become a national sport.

The emphasis on transforming the Miami Heat into a new dynasty (combining James with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh into a new "Dream Team") overnight has a real habit of wrangling sports fans, leading even moderately disinterested people to hate a team "spending too much" to try to win a championship or to engineer a dynasty. Doubt me? Consider the New York Yankees (how much love is there for George Steinbrenner from people who aren't already fans of the pinstripes) or the Dallas Cowboys (recall that Jerry Jones was once named "least favorite sports personality" by Sports Illustrated).

When talking to a good friend recently, I think she really hit on a critical theme in why this rubs people the wrong way: such intentional efforts to assemble unstoppable talent is antithetical to what makes sports so fun and compelling... the lack of predictability. That is, no one wants to see sports teams that are pre-ordained or irrepressible -- fans watch games for the drama of the unknown to play out (literally). Explicit and obvious attempts to monkey around with one of the most psychologically compelling features of sport are not well received by fans.

In the case of James and the Miami Heat, the animosity is compounded by the deliberate attempt of Pat Riley to engineer a championship team in South Florida. Such an intentional desire to install a dynasty threatens the (arguably, illusory) sense of freedom for teams to discover and build their own destinies. When people attempt to limit freedom and outcomes, it produces psychological reactance, which is a negative emotional response that leads people to act in ways to prove to others that all is not predetermined. Ask any parent who tells children they MUST clean their plate or pick up the their toys in the livingroom. What do these children do? Anything but finish their dinner or tidy up the house.

As such, hating the "next America's Team" is as American as the rugged individualism that makes reaffirming one's freedom so necessary. The more Riley tries to ensure a championship, the more fans will root against the Heat.


Now that the manufactured drama of The Decision is (thankfully) over, it will be interesting to see how fans respond to LeBron and his newly surfaced huge ego. Although the sense of pain many Clevelanders will experience of having their own son stab them in the back is to be expected, it seems likely that LeBron Hating (and Miami Heat Hating) may become all the rage in the NBA next season.

With the exception of "pro wrestling," sports fans like the idea of selfless sports heros competing fairly in contests that exhibit the best of human nature. Ironically, in an attempt to build something better, LeBron's self-absorbed actions undercut the nature of what makes sports so appealing to many fans. I certainly don't begrudge him pursuing choices that maximize his own gains -- c'mon, the man got the world's leading sports network to devote an hour of its primetime schedule to cover his job choice for a 9-digit payday in a time where unemployment is unacceptably high, including in James's "beloved" hometown of Akron where 10% are without jobs (according to May 2010 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

That being said, not only will James be wearing a new Heat jersey next season, but he may find a considerable amount of new heat dogging him in the wake of The Decision for years to come. At the very least, the Cleveland Cavaliers' slogan of "one for all" is suddenly looking rather passé.

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