— They called it the LeBomb James. It was the spring of 2009, the LeBron-led Cavaliers finished the regular season with the best record in franchise history and were heading into the NBA Finals wearing the overall No. 1 seed. Several Cleveland-area bars decided the best way to commemorate a 66-win season was with 80-proof alcohol, so they started serving shots of Crown Royal and Red Bull, pounding the LeBombs until Cleveland’s season ended in Orlando.
Two years and zero Championship rings later, “LeBron Bombs” could be either a drink special or a declarative sentence. Either way, an even bigger crowd spent Sunday night clinking their glasses and celebrating after another of James’ seasons finished with slumped shoulders and missed shots. LeBron-bashing has surged past lawn darts and getting diabetes to become one of America’s favorite pastimes and James has clocked the fastest fall from grace since the night an Ambien-addled Tiger Woods used a fire hydrant as a bumper sticker.
For whatever reason, we tend to assume that outsized athletic ability is packaged with an equally oversized moral code, and we hold our most popular, most gifted athletes to a higher ethical standard than we hold ourselves. It’s neither fair nor rational … but we do it anyway. LeBron and Tiger have both become cautionary tales for what happens when athletes aren’t all-stars in their attitudes or business decisions or the other aspects of their lives that aren’t interrupted by credit card commercials.
Although the collective dislike for LeBron has been amplified by almost every SportsCenter segment and postgame soundbite, public opinion seems to be shifting for Tiger. Could it be that after 18 months of being eviscerated by everyone from Gloria Allred to Oprah, we’ve started to forgive him or, more unbelievably, feel sorry for him? Yeah. I think we have.
Woods won’t be at Congressional Country Club for this week’s U.S. Open, missing the event for the first time since 1994. He hasn’t played golf since he withdrew from the field nine holes and six bogeys into last month’s Player’s Championship. He walked off the course that day; now he can barely walk. In pictures in the Daily Mail, Woods looked like Bob Cratchit’s other kid, with crutches under both arms and a boot covering his injured Achilles' tendon.
Since he became the only name on the Skankbank Open leaderboard, Woods has hemorrhaged sponsors, gotten divorced and, presumably, is only allowed to see his kids for carefully timed increments. What else could he lose?
Golf. Woods lost the world No. 1 ranking and has fallen out of the top 10 for the first time since we thought Matt LeBlanc was talented. He’s lost all 18 events he’s entered since reappearing on the PGA Tour last season. And now, with his House-worthy left leg, his future looks like it will be decorated with DNPs, WDs and a lot of question marks.
Tiger seems too human to hate anymore. Maybe it’s because so much time has passed since he made his first appearance on the cover of US Weekly. Or because there have been other sex scandals that left the paparazzi tripping over their telescopic lenses. Or because he went to rehab and sought professional treatment (which isn’t an option for LeBron, unless there’s a quaint southern DoucheCamp we haven’t heard about).
But I think it’s because of the biggest difference between Woods and James: Tiger apologized.
It might’ve been stilted, it might’ve been scripted and it was most definitely written by someone who doesn’t own a divot-repair tool. But he still apologized, awkwardly shifting his weight behind wooden lectern as he said the words “I am sorry.”
Look, neither James nor Woods really owed the public a Hallmark card and an Edible Arrangement (No, Tiger, that’s not a euphemism). Woods cheated on his wife, not on the folding-chair carrying fan base that follows him around Augusta National. James screwed over his former employer, not the residents of Cuyahoga County. But that’s not the way it feels — or felt — not if you buy into the bizarre sense of entitlement that sports fans get, the one that allows us to say “You owe me an apology because I don’t really know you but you aren’t the person I thought I knew.”
Despite the fact that he sometimes seems more wooden than an IKEA warehouse, Woods gets that. Or he listens when his handlers tell him to get that.
“I’m deeply sorry for my irresponsible and selfish behavior I engaged in,” Woods said in February. “I have let you down. I have let down my fans. For many of you, especially my friends, my behavior has been a personal disappointment.”
Woods apologized and never took a shot at his critics or the amount of publicity that appeared in his personal space. How could he? He brought all of it on himself. So did James, but he’s not self-aware enough to understand that yet. Maybe that’s why LeBron has become LeBad Guy and Tiger was never more than a punchline.
“LeBron has been a lightning rod for a lot of everything, criticism and a lot of the noise that’s been created outside,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “I think it’s really unfair. He made a tremendous sacrifice to come here and he’s been an ultimate team player. He should not be criticized for that.”
No, but he gives us plenty of other things to criticize him for. It’s less about the capital-D Decision and more about the little-d decisions he made in the months that followed, whether it was the self-indulgent Nike ad, taunting his former teammates in 140-character increments, or reminding anyone without “Chosen 1” inked across their shoulder blades that he’s better than they are.
“I’ve kind of accepted this villain role everyone has placed on me. I’m OK with it. I accept it.” James said in January.
That’s a good thing. Because until he becomes more perceptive, a little more human and a lot more humble, he’ll continue to play that part. So we’ll endure our “personal problems” and terrible little lives and wait for next season, for another round of "LeBron bombs", period.