Well, the great drama of where LeBron James would play in future years has mercifully come to an end. There must not be a single person in America, however remotely located or disinterested in sports, who escaped from the endless speculation that culminated with an actual TV show where he revealed his decision. Surely the last was an act of egotism that has not been exceeded by any sports figure?
Living as I do in Cleveland, which was at the center of this spectacle, I could only marvel at how emotionally swept up people got about this whole thing. Even though I resolutely tried to ignore the coverage, not reading the endless newspaper articles, I still could not avoid being nauseated by the headlines alone, and the sight of an entire city and region, including civic leaders, begging and pleading with him to stay. This was over and above the usual and also highly excessive day-to-day adulation that we have lived with over the last decade ever since it became clear, even while he was in a local high school, that he had exceptionally good basketball skills. This devotion to him manifested itself in huge murals with him in messianic poses and his every movement adoringly reported in the papers, with front-page photos of him appearing regularly.
Just think about this for a moment. All this was because he was able to play with a ball better than others. Of course some would try to rationalize their childish involvement with something so trivial by trotting out economic arguments, such as that his playing here brought a boost to the economy by having people come to the city to go to the games, patronize the restaurants, and so forth. I have no doubt that there was some economic impact but it was clear that what was going on was based on far more than economics. This city is desperate to win a national championship in a major sport and winning the spelling bee simply does not cut it.
This desperation manifested in the city and its sports fans acting like a needy lover who is willing to do anything in order to keep the object of devotion around. And as often happens, when the lover is spurned and the object of adoration finds someone new, love turns to hate in a second. Instead of the spurned lover throwing all the stuff out the window, in this case fans are destroying or defacing the ubiquitous James memorabilia. The murals are coming down. Angry, vicious letters appear in the newspapers. The city has called James selfish, ungrateful, and a traitor. They seem shocked that he would leave them after all the love they have given him
What did they expect? Shifting metaphors, the city is like overly indulgent parents who give in to their adored child’s every whim, praise him incessantly, overlook or excuse every misstep, and then are surprised to find that he has grown up to be thoroughly spoiled, only cares about himself, and spurns his parents when he no longer needs them. In his TV special he said quite explicitly that he wanted to do what’s best for himself with no other consideration in mind.
I can understand that, actually, but that is because I know that major sports is a business in which sentimentality plays little or no part. Players are businessmen, going where they can make the most money. So are the team owners. The Cleveland Cavaliers owner called James ungrateful, which he is, but is that news? I am certain that he, like other sports team owners, would in turn dump the city in a heartbeat and move somewhere else if they did not cater to his whims. The owners and players can be like this because they exploit the fans’ sentimental attachment to their teams, which makes them willing to shell out huge amounts of money for taxes to pay for new stadiums with luxury accommodations for wealthy patrons, highly inflated ticket prices, buy team merchandise, and watch their teams on TV.
I used to be a sports fan once, long ago. My emotions would rise and fall with the success of my team and I would eagerly discuss with other fanatics the possibilities of the next game or do a post-mortem on the one just passed. But then I grew up and realized that there were other things in life that were more important. I got further disenchanted when I became aware how cynically owners and players viewed the fans, as people with pockets to be picked. Now sports is something I follow casually by flipping through the sports section of the daily paper in a few minutes, but refuse to take seriously.
Since I live in Cleveland, I would like the city to win a football or basketball championship only because it is painful to watch actual adults agonize over not doing so for so long, and winning would put an end to that misery, at least for the next few decades I hope. (As for the local baseball team and its fans, I have no sympathy whatsoever for them because of their determination to hold on to the offensive Chief Wahoo logo.) It is pathetic that the city feels so invested in achieving something so trivial and I am embarrassed for them. In Bertholt Brecht’s play Galileo, Andrea tells his teacher “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero” to which Galileo replies, “No, Andrea, unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” How much more unhappy (and pathetic) is a city that needs as a hero someone whose main skill is the ability to throw a ball through a hoop?
LeBron James can go wherever he likes and apart from feeling sympathy for how badly the people here feel because they suspect that their one chance of success has slipped through their hands, I simply couldn’t care less. I am grateful, though, that the hoopla surrounding him will now take place far, far away.
POST SCRIPT: Paul Robeson
If people feel they must have heroes, then instead of venerating athletes with just one talent who simply look out for themselves, people should emulate figures like the multi-talented Paul Robeson, athlete, singer, actor, and activist, who was willing to sacrifice his career to fight for justice for the poor and against racism. Because of his outspokenness, he was hounded by the US government and his passport seized for many years. My parents had the great privilege of attending a concert given in London by Robeson after he got it back, and said that it was electrifying.
Here is Robeson singing the song that became identified with him, Old Man River from the musical Show Boat. It is a performance that never fails to move me, especially its memorable lines, “I get weary and sick of trying. I’m tired of living and scared of dying.”
Later in life, Robeson would change the lyrics to make them less despairing and more inspiring.
The commentary you hear is by Harry Belafonte, a worthy successor to Robeson as someone who uses his celebrity to advance the cause of justice.