Here is a link to my Sunday column about how we talk about African-American athletes like LeBron James. The full text runs below:
Call it the LeBron Syndrome.
It is a glitch in American journalism. And it makes me wonder how our society talks, writes and thinks about African-American athletes.
Professional journalists call LeBron James “LeBron” way too often. Let me explain. It is the custom in newspapers to give a person’s full name in the first reference in any article. The first reference, I write “John Doe.” Every subsequent time, the custom — I’d even say the rule — is to write just plain “Doe.”
Not so with James. Sportswriters across America — not all sportswriters — refer to him throughout articles as LeBron, as if that’s his name in journalism. It’s not. TV and radio talkers almost never say James. It’s LeBron. LeBron. LeBron.
At the very least, this over-LeBronning breaks with convention. The question: Why do journalists do this?
Before answering, I want to point out something. Journalists tend to use first names for African-American or dark-skinned athletes, but not for white athletes. I don’t know why, but I have theories. I am thinking about this phenomenon during the NBA Finals because of LeBron James and how journalists portray him.
Current examples of first-name-only usage: LeBron, Kobe, Magic, Serena, Venus, Tiger, Pablo, Marshawn, Dusty.
From former eras — Reggie, Rickey, Shaq, Kareem, Wilt, Vida, Michael, Pedro.
Sandy Koufax, white and Jewish from Brooklyn, has a colorful nickname — Sandy — but everyone always called him Koufax verbally and in print. Same with Buster Posey. Colorful nickname. Always Posey in print.
You get the point. Big difference.
If I were a black athlete, I might not mind being called by my first name. LeBron, for example. The name would establish my individuality, my unique personality and my brand. The name might be more personal than what was passed down to me as a slave master’s name – James, Jackson, Washington, etc. One reason Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali is that he wanted to rid himself of Clay, the slave name.
African-American fans might relate to black athletes by calling them by their first names. It’s a form of bonding, of acknowledging brotherhood.
But what about sportswriters, mostly white? Why do they use LeBron instead of James, and Kobe instead of Bryant?
The Positive Theory
African-American and black athletes have big, delightful personalities, and often colorful names. Writers cannot resist these people, are overcome by them. This theory has great strength.
Black athletes do have large, life-embracing personalities. I don’t know why. But I’ve experienced it the past four decades. It’s probably cultural. And it’s wonderful.
I think of Satchel Paige as larger than life and wish I had met him. Reggie Jackson owned New York. He was, as he himself said, the “straw that stirs the drink.” They even named a chocolate bar after him, the Reggie Bar. Magic Johnson lights up a room. Heck, he lights up the universe.
I could go on. Vida Blue is irresistible. Funny. Playful. Warm. I see him often at CSNBayArea. I always hug him because I like him so much and he always says, “White guys don’t know how to hug a black man.” But he hugs me anyway.
Dusty Baker is so complex, so fascinating, so special he always becomes an important person in someone’s life after a short exposure to his glow.
Even Barry Bonds has a big personality. Not the right kind of personality. But big as Alaska.
Compare Larry Bird to Magic Johnson. Bird is subdued, inward, an odd duck. Could be cultural. Great player. But no one called him Larry.
Koufax, too, is subdued. Let me amend that. He is elusive. He is present as an absence — shuns the spotlight.
Try to name a white athlete with the personality of Muhammad Ali or Reggie Jackson or Dusty Baker. Babe Ruth comes to mind — they did call him The Babe. And Billy Martin. They called him Billy, although not in print. And Arnie was Arnie.
What’s the point? White sportswriters are so taken with superstar black athletes they break journalism’s rules to write about them. They break the rules from an over-abundance of affection and admiration. Although, and this is an irony, James does not have a big personality — not like Blue. Like Bird he is introverted. And Bryant (Kobe) is a sourpuss.
The Not So Positive Theory
White journalists assume a familiarity with black athletes that doesn’t exist. They write or speak on air about “LeBron” as if he’s a close friend or a relative. He’s not. They write or talk about “LeBron” as if they have profound personal understanding of his personal life. They don’t.
They presume too much and go too far.
Looked at a certain way, using only the first name is condescending and belittling. If Koufax is entitled to his last name, why isn’t James? Calling James “LeBron” makes him almost a pet or a mascot.
In the South, whites called black men “boy,” or by their first names. It was a form of putdown. Of keeping down. Is this LeBron Syndrome related to that? I have no idea. And I may be reading too much into the whole thing. One black NBA coach I spoke to never had thought about the phenomenon or even realized it exists. But I wonder about it.
One thing I don’t wonder about. Referring to LeBron James as “LeBron” in newspaper articles is just not professional — at the very least, it’s bad journalism.
You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn firstname.lastname@example.org.