Generally speaking, Plugged In doesn’t wade into the happenings of the sports world. Occasionally, though, something happens in that realm that’s worthy of our scrutiny. And a story that played out earlier this week offers a fascinating example of a trend that’s increasingly prevalent in our culture, the trend toward narcissism.
Like millions of others this week, I found myself riveted by the drama playing out in the NBA Finals, where the Dallas Mavericks upended the Miami Heat. The Heat, of course, are led by the vaunted LeBron James. Even if you don’t pay much attention to sports, there’s a good chance that you heard about LeBron’s exodus from Cleveland last year to join the Heat, along with a couple of other marquee superstars. LeBron, labeled by some as the most physically talented pro basketball player in history, promised multiple championships … and became one of the most despised athletes in recent memory in the process. When he failed to deliver on his lofty promises, his critics—lots of them—savored the opportunity to pounce.
Instead of expressing anything approximating humility in the wake of losing the title, though, LeBron wasted little time before launching a vitriol-infused volley back at all the “haters” out there during the post-game press conference.
“All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today,” James said. “They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that. They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal. But they have to get back to the real world at some point.”
Many (if not most) sportswriters have interpreted James’ comments as saying, in essence, My life’s still awesome but yours stinks. ESPN commentator Tim Keown was among several who called James on the carpet for being a world-class narcissist.
We've somehow become accustomed to the idea that athletes—especially self-aggrandizing narcissists like James—consider the world's rank-and-file to be losers of the first order. Everyone is beneath him, therefore the most severe verbal retaliation he can summon in his worst moment is to draw attention to the difference between his life and the lives of those who question him. In other words: those sad, pathetic, diminutive lives led by everyone else.
Keown then took things one interesting step further, connecting the dots between LeBron’s self-centered comments and the general trend toward narcissism in our society as a whole (a trend I recently wrote about here).
James is the perfect case study of the I'm-Somebody-And-You're-Not phenomenon. He came of age in what might become known as The Entitlement Generation. I have a friend who owns a company that hires many recent college graduates, and he says the self-esteem of the 22- to 28-year-old set is both astounding and misguided. They've been raised to believe they should be overflowing with personal pride—not a horrible concept in moderation—and they've passed the elementary-school classes to prove it. They've grown up in a world of parents who worship them rather than discipline them, and they've rarely been given honest, frank assessments of their talents. Everybody is good at everything, nobody loses, nobody fails, nobody should be called to account for their inadequacies. James is the phenomenon in the fun-house mirror.
James is, I’ll admit, right about one thing. He—and myriad other professional athletes—do live in a world of privilege. And plenty insulates them from realities most of the rest of us have to grapple with on a daily basis. It’s a recipe for self-centeredness, for living in an out-of-touch bubble.
That said, plenty of top-flight players from previous generations still managed to display class and humility, in both victory and in defeat. What’s the difference now? As Keown noted, LeBron and others like him have come of age in a time that, more than ever before, focuses on me, me, me.