LeBron James, Prodigal Son?

I'm pleased to guest post this from our occasional guest poster Jeffrey Scholes, co-author of the recently published book Religion and Sports in American Culture

Jeffrey Scholes
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

LeBron James announced his decision to return to his old team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, last Friday through a Sports Illustrated piece entitled, “I’m Coming Home.” This kind of statement is a far cry from his announcement to leave Cleveland in 2010 and “take his talents to South Beach” to play for the Miami Heat. Considered a ridiculous proposition two months ago as the Heat were poised to win their third championship in a row, James’ pronouncement sent shock waves throughout the sports world.

Interestingly, the predominant adjective used to describe James after his return to Cleveland in the media is “prodigal.” Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe writes that James is the “Prodigal Son, returning home to protect the rim.”  Prodigal son language is also couched in terms of the economic benefits that James will bring to Cleveland—hence another reason for the allusion of a “father” killing the fatted calf. The Onion succinctly summarized the feelings of many fans inside and outside of Cleveland with its satirical and blunt title, “Prodigal Asshole Returns.”

While the wayward son in Jesus’ parable found in Luke differs considerably from LeBron James (as does other facets of the two stories), associating the two makes some sense. James asks his “father” in Cleveland for a lot of money, spurns his hometown seven years later (and sadistically keeps the Cavaliers in the dark about his plans) for the big(ger) city lights of Miami, is hated in Cleveland with the kind of passion that produces holidays, but finally returns home to face the music.

Less interesting is whether the parable maps onto LeBron’s return to Cleveland accurately or not when compared to how useful is the function of religious language to describe a sports event—it certainly does to some degree. More interestingly the use of the term “prodigal” reveals the limits of secular and sacred language to capture what has happened in both the biblical story and that of James.

The inadequacy of secular language is exposed to some extent by the mere use of the “prodigal son” to illustrate the event. Momentous occasions in sports seem to defy ordinary language as the “Miracle on Ice” of the 1980 Winter Olympics, the “Hail Mary” pass in football, or the “Immaculate Reception” of Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris in a 1972 NFL divisional playoff game indicate. What other adjectives could have been used to accurately portray LeBron’s decision to return to Cleveland? “Apologetic”? “Contrite”? “Noble”? “Prodigal” at once conjures up the religious symbolism of the sacred needed to convey the importance of the event without immediately devolving into blasphemy.

Yet LeBron-as-Prodigal Son also suggests the shortcomings of religious language when it comes to capturing a “secular” event. To extend the Prodigal Son metaphor as it concerns this story, one may ask: what did LeBron James do so egregiously wrong that demanded redemption with his homecoming? He was a free man who played the free market in 2010. How was James wasteful exactly? He took far less money to play in Miami (for the noble goal of winning a championship) than he could have garnered on the open market and even less than he was earning in Cleveland the year before. Who is the Father and who is the son in the LeBron James narrative? As his nickname suggests, LeBron, dubbed and self-identified as “King James,” is unable to subject himself to a higher authority as the desperate prodigal son is compelled to do. Moreover, the owner of the Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert, begged LeBron to return by suddenly expressing his contrition for writing an angry letter to him in 2010. Father and son roles are effectively reversed here.

Yes, describing LeBron James as the Prodigal Son proves inaccurate at best, offensive to some at worst. Yet if the underlying root of the parable is not necessarily humility, forgiveness, redemption, or divine love but the act of returning home, then it makes more sense to apply it to James’ return to Cleveland. Leaving home for greener pastures is a rite of passage for most Americans. Success or failure may be found in those pastures, but either way, the return to our “less-green” homes is usually a temporary visit, a family obligation. In light of this, James is bucking a trend by permanently going back to his hometown team (or so he claims) that by all accounts is unlikely to win a ring this year and to a city that lacks the glitzy environment that a player such as James could insist on without much fan resistance this time around. However, he sounds like a throwback (while still retaining some swagger) in his statement to Sports Illustrated:

I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.

And while prodigal son parable may not perfectly fit the ongoing LeBron-to-Cleveland narrative, the following quote from him should serve an invitation to recommend another religious interpretation:

I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from.

A calling, indeed! But is it from God or from the king himself? Thinking of his legacy, LeBron makes himself larger than life, believing that he can make a difference in the lives of others simply with his “presence.” Oh, great King James, may your presence be felt everywhere and your blessings bestowed on the lowly people of Northeast Ohio!


Charlie McCrary said…
This is an interesting piece, but what is it about the "religious" nature of the term "prodigal" that causes problems with the metaphor? I don't see what that classification adds to the analysis.

Popular Posts