John Tauer Ph.D.

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Image is Everything: LeBron James and the Pratfall Effect

Athletes are role models whether they like it or not.

Posted Jul 22, 2009

Recently, LeBron James was dunked on at his basketball camp by a college sophomore named Jordan Crawford. This caused quite the stir, not necessarily because a 20-year-old dunked on James, but because of the reaction by James and corporate giant Nike. James and Nike representatives confiscated two videotapes of Crawford's dunk on James. Why did this happen and what does it reveal to us about James' mindset?

To provide some context, James signed a $90 MILLION contract with Nike when he was still in HIGH SCHOOL. At the time, I remember wondering how an 18-year-old would keep a level head with that type of fame and fortune. To my surprise, LeBron James has been even better than advertised coming out of high school.

James is 24 years old, and in this coach's opinion, better at his age than anyone who has ever played basketball. The only two players in the past 20 years who seem to be appropriate comparisons are Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Jordan is generally regarded as the top player in NBA history, and some believe Bryant is more talented than Jordan, at least in certain aspects of the game.

Now, James has yet to win an NBA Championship, but neither did Jordan until he was 28 years old. Even then, Jordan had Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant on his team, both of whom were NBA All-Stars. Bryant won his first title at age 21, but he was clearly the 2nd fiddle to Shaquille O'Neal on the 2000 Lakers. James has already led one team to the NBA Finals and took a decent, but not great Cavaliers team to 66 wins this past season.

What about individual statistics? James stacks up well compared to Jordan and Bryant in this area. James has averaged 28 points per game, 7 assists, and 7 rebounds per game for his career. Bryant has averaged 25, 5, and 5, while Jordan averaged 30, 5, and 6. It is clear James already belongs in conversations about the top players in the past 25 years.

Given all his success, two things impress me as much as James' ability: 1) his unselfishness, and 2) his maturity. Time and time again, I see James pass up tough shots to create an easy shot for teammates. He seems to have a sixth sense that allows him to make the right play again and again. Simply stated, I think James has the ability, intellect, and desire to be the greatest basketball player in history. He has an unparalleled combination of size, strength, skill, and motivation. Of course, he will have to win championships to be considered the greatest of all time, and there is no guarantee that will happen.

By most accounts, James has conducted himself exceptionally well on and off the court. Of course, this is not too common among pro athletes, especially ones who have so much given to them (e.g., $90 Million) at such a young age. One need only to look at the litany of NBA stars who led their teams to championships to see NBA stardom on the court does not ensure good decisions off it. Whether it is Kobe Bryant's alleged rape, Michael Jordan's gambling problem, Charles Barkley's issues with gambling and alcohol, Larry Bird's denial of paternity to his daughter, or charges of sexual harassment against Isiah Thomas, it is easy to find athletes involved in questionable behavior. Of course, athletes live in a fishbowl, and one mistake may receive more media attention than hundreds of good deeds.

James' reputation, to this point, has been stellar. He is a team player, conducts himself well in interviews, and has not been involved in any stories that call his character into question. His teammates appear to enjoy playing with him, and he with them (contrast that with stories about both Bryant and Jordan who were reported to periodically berate teammates to the point where teammates feared them mightily). James is one of those pro athletes who parents are happy for their kids to follow as a role model. He deserves all of his accolades and has handled his success with grace and poise.

However, as much as I am a fan of James, three recent incidents make me wonder whether his image as "King James" has taken his reputation to a point he can't live up to. As a result, I worry James may be in a cycle where he can't live up to the perfection people expect, and that he is beginning to succumb to the pressure of these expectations.

Exhibit A: After sweeping their first two playoff series with record-breaking ease (the Cavs set a record for most consecutive playoff wins by double digit margins), media and fans alike were ready to anoint King James as NBA Champ. However, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Orlando, favored Cleveland lost 107-106, in spite of a heroic 49 point effort by James. Immediately after the game, James crumpled to the floor, plagued by what appeared to be leg cramps. Now, as anyone who has had leg cramps can attest, they can be downright excruciating.

As James stayed on the floor, medical personnel rushed to his side. For nearly 10 minutes after the game had concluded, Cavs fans waited, worried about their hero. Something struck me as odd - James had just played an unbelievable game, and I wondered if he stayed on the floor to allow the fans a chance to watch their fallen hero. Was he using the cramps as an excuse? We'll never know, but in social psychology, we use the term self-handicapping to describe the use of an external factor to justify a failure. James' appeared to have cramps throughout the fourth quarter, but I remember calling a friend that night, wondering why James didn't hobble to the locker room (after all, he had the strength to play nearly the entire game) and get treated there. Was he trying to draw attention to his injury as a way to explain the unexpected loss? This was a minor event, and received virtually no attention in the media, but it was the first time James had done something that struck me as potentially "me-oriented".

Exhibit B: Fast forward five games, after the Cavaliers had been beaten by the Magic four games to two. After the series, James did not shake hands with the victorious Magic. James' actions were roundly criticized. After the fact, James said, "It's hard for me to congratulate someone after you lose to them. I'm a winner. It's not being a poor sport or anything like that. But somebody beats you up, you're not going to congratulate them on beating you up. That doesn't make sense." To many, this came as less of an apology and more of a justification for his decision not to shake hands. Social psychologist Leon Festinger formulated cognitive dissonance theory to describe the process we go through when our behavior is inconsistent with our attitudes. Frequently, the result is that we justify our actions by changing our attitudes. Here, James appeared to justify his not shaking hands with the Magic. The danger of that logic is that if everyone followed James, shaking hands, along with other behaviors associated with good sportsmanship, would become obsolete after competition because there is always one winner and one loser.

Exhibit C: Let's return to LeBron James getting dunked on by Jordan Crawford. Keep in mind, this was not a pimply-faced high school kid. Crawford averaged 10 points per game as a freshman at Indiana University before transferring to Xavier due to a coaching change at Indiana. By all accounts, Crawford is a very talented player. Furthermore, anyone who has played basketball at a relatively high level has been dunked on at one time or another. It is simply part of the game.

James' (and Nike's) decision to confiscate the tape appears to be another attempt at maintaining a perfect image. While it is unclear what role James had and what role Nike had in the confiscation of the tape, what is ironic is that James has received far more negative attention for having the tape destroyed than if he had simply allowed the tape to be shared.

In fact, psychologists who have studied the "pratfall effect" find that when a person is generally competent, making a blunder can actually increase others' liking of that individual. In a classic study, Aronson and colleagues (1966) had participants rate a fellow student who was taking part in a quiz show. In one condition, the student spilled coffee on himself, but as long as he had otherwise behaved in a competent manner, participants actually liked him more than if he had behaved competently but not spilled coffee on himself.

The reason for this pratfall effect? Making mistakes humanizes people who otherwise may seem superhuman and too good for the rest of us mere mortals. Thus, in James' case, allowing people to view Crawford's dunk might not damage his reputation; in fact, it may actually enhance it. (my cynical side thinks that Nike knows about the pratfall effect, and that they already have a commercial in the works that will coincide with the release of LeBron's next pair of shoes).

My more pressing concern is that LeBron James strikes me as a tremendous role model for children. He is a positive teammate, hard worker, and strives for excellence in all that he does. If the desire to maintain a perfect image trumps reality, then we may see more of James' self-handicapping, dissonance reduction, and impression management. I hold out hope that these are three cases of James coping with expectations of perfection during an otherwise unbelievable career.

LeBron James has the talent, personality, and drive to captivate fans and impact youth in America. Let's hope he sets an example for kids by being himself and allowing fans to see him for what he is - an incredible basketball player who is human and has lots of flaws just like the rest of us.

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