When it comes to tonight's much ballyhooed Lebron James announcement, the internet tubes are afire with vitriol and vengeance when it comes to James. Sifting through the objections, I find two of them to be fairly legitimate:
1. Lebron is screwing Cleveland, an economically ravaged and sports-abused city whose history is so depressing that its lake once caught on fire. If you wanted to sleep with a Cleveland sports icon before Lebron you might have to choose this guy. The Drive, The Fumble, the team leaving for Baltimore unceremoniously, Mike Fratello's boredom infused offense, several years of Tyrone Hill, Joe Table's blown save. You've heard it all before (and probably today in Bill Simmons' column @ ESPN).
2. Lebron is somehow turning his free agency into even MORE of a ridiculous media spectacle, holding the world hostage to "The Decision" show tonight in what amounts to a form of highway robbery committed ad nauseam on the nation's attention span.
I find the first objection appealing but ultimately unpersuasive. Top athletes should want to win titles. We all mourn the loss of teams in their prime that lost their shot at immortality because a key player left elsewhere to pursue a better income (as a Titans fan this is how I feel about Albert Haynesworth, but more paradigmatic examples include any number of college sports teams that see players leave early for the pros, the departure of Barry Bonds from the Pittsburgh Pirates prior to the 1993 season, or even Tracy McGrady's departure from what was a completely loaded Toronto Raptors team almost ten years ago). But we rarely mourn players that leave their established teams to win titles (Ray Bourque, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and even the hated Alex Rodriguez was somewhat redeemed by winning a title with the Yankees) because the idea of wanting to win is so intimately connected to the sporting ethos. Ultimately, Kevin Garnett wanted out of Minnesota and we got that: playing with Gary Trent, Ervin Johnson (no, not that one!), and Trenton Hassell gets old because you know you're not going to win the big one. The space of sports does not give us a coherent argument against Lebron James unless we are judging his decision to depart outside of the realm of sport, by making something like a political judgment about his role in Cleveland's economy. Within the frame of sport, the only objection we might have relates to something like an idea of "loyalty" to your institution or franchise but this language is unintelligible in a sporting world where free agency has now been a fact of life in the four major sports for at least 25 years, if not more. Sports are more about winning then about location.
The second objection is correct, but does not relate to the content of James's decision. We all agree he is making an egostistical spectacle of himself. Fine, but thats not a reason to be angry he leaves for Miami. Its a reason to be mad that the 24/7 media cycle and your twitter feed and the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich Connecticut, or whatever, keeps coming up.
No, I think the anger is mostly a result of how, if the "Miami Thrice" rumor is true, the element of luck has been abolished by the agency of the athlete free agents. What I mean is: we consume sports because there is an intrinsic element of chance at almost all levels of the endeavor (this is especially true of basketball, with the draft lottery). Injuries can occur--thats chance. You are born in a certain place and root for a team--thats chance. Some players pan out, others don't (this is in actuality a lot more like skill at judging talent, at least in basketball, but we often think about it as chance unless a number of decisions pile up so high that we feel comfortable calling it numbskullery). Always, in sport, we are presented with indestructable forces and moveable objects. The Greatest Show on Turf against the Patriots. Namath's no-chance Jets against the Baltimore Colts. The plucky Detroit No-Names (relatively) against the Los Angeles Lakers Pu-Pu-Platter of doom in 2004. The Buffalo sabres repeated attempts to ride hot goaltending to a Stanley Cup. The Marlins agains the Yankees in 2003. Boston's incredible win against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS is noteworth, because it indicated that no matter the material equality's seeming insurmountability (3-0 lead) we expect the impossible, and it can still happen (interesting, of course, how easy it was for the narrative to whitewash Boston's own incredible payroll and resources, far dwarfing those of a team like the Milwaukee Brewers).
We consume sports so that we might see the exceptional happen. Unless we root for the Yankees, the Celtics, the Lakers, the Jordan-era Bulls, the Belichik era Patriots, or the Detroit Red Wings, we are hoping for the unexpected to occur. We are hoping that what occurs will not be what we think will happen. "That's why they play the game" is the ultimate trite statement about a sporting event but in its essence it gets to why we consume sport--we do so because what it provides to us is not guaranteed by anything except for the ingeneuity, talents, and skills of those involved in the contest.
The problem with this assemblage of talent is not that it is unprecedented (some of the loaded Cowboys teams of the nineties, or say the Showtime Lakers or eighties Celtics all had as much raw talent) but that it has been assembled but through shrewd GM dealings (at least, not in our imagination) but instead is simply the product of the will of the players. That's it. There is no natural barrier to this occurring. No trades, draft dealings, nothing short of either Toronto or Cleveland winning a title could stop it (if it happens). It creates a sense of inevitability and a foreboding about the future of sports on an era no just of free agency, but FREE AGENCY, a truly meaningful possibility for players to unlock all of their potentials with the players they want to play with. And we have no tools to attack this decision in our existing sporting vocabulary because the most important thing in sports is winning. When an amazing player doesn't win a title he's in some ways a failure (Dan Marino, Charles Barkley, and countless others). But now that we see a player willing to do whatever possible to win we are confronted with the seedy underside of our demand that the players focus only on winning: that winning is at the end an individual goal that occurs within the framework of a team, rather than a team goal that suboordinates the individual at every step. Yes, egos and individuality must be suboordinated within a team for a championship victory to happen, but we call them the Jordan Bulls and not the Pippen Bulls or the Rodman Bulls.
So the "Miami Thrice" option presents a problem not just because of how this Heat team might dominate (which they quite possibly would), but also because the idea of competition is itself threatened in a world where all athletes unite in order to win the big one. We are frightened by the prospect of seeing only All-Star games from the conference semis on, in no small measure because it seems unlikely that the stars would ever choose to go win in a place like Sacramento or Cleveland instead of Miami or LA. Rather than equally distributing chance amongst all the teams in a league (Wait til' next year!) the probabilities of victory are pre-ordained to only include a certain few teams. There are, after all, only a certain few superstars and you need them to win a title. When their finite numbers are concentrated rather than dispersed we become afraid that the possibilities, the potential for victory and surprise and upset are now scarce, and will be forever scarce because there is nothing irrational (an economic protection in the local or nationalist sense, an emotional bond so strong that a player stays AGAINST his own interests) to stay the existence and production of a super-rational and highly efficient sports market where winners win, losers lose, and Ray Bourque would have left Boston in 1993.
Because ultimately, star athletes in their prime stay where they are for a tautological yet fulfilling reason: their presence where they are makes the team they are with, in some ways, a conceivable championship contender. With James, Cleveland is a contender but not overwhelmingly so. In imagining James to Miami with Bosh and Wade, we see an athlete calculating not in totalities (some chance vs. no chance) but instead making a calculation at the margins--that while Cleveland might offer some chance of a title, Miami's is better. Of course, we always want our stars to want to win. Why else do we hate players like Monta Ellis, and what better explains a lot of the vitriol towards Allen Iverson (well, that and race), players who put up great numbers but can't win? We consistently indict these players for not putting their team first. The assumption, of course, is that the team they need to put first is THEIR team, and not some other one. But when the desire for a championship that has been created by a demand that ANY great athlete "win the big one" is so great that a player finds themselves criticized on that front, we fans and commentators who worried that "Marino just didn't know how to win the Super Bowl" should not be surprised that we are now being hoisted on our own petards. Because ultimately, these guys are competitors. And with the prospect of this decision, that is what we're getting.
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