Why Do We Care?

Okay, seri­ous­ly: I am writ­ing about LeBron James.

I don’t know why. I will make no attempt to con­ceal the fact that I know next to noth­ing about pro­fes­sion­al bas­ket­ball these days, and care even less. I have nev­er seen a moment of play by James – or any of the oth­er buzzed-about play­ers these days. There were a cou­ple of years when I got excit­ed about the Tim­ber­wolves when they first arrived, but that was 1989: I was eleven years old, so any­thing new was excit­ing. All I remem­ber of that now is the name “Pooh Richard­son” and dis­cov­er­ing the bit­ter­ness still fes­ter­ing in the state over the Lak­ers’ depar­ture thir­ty years ear­li­er.

But then I grew up a lit­tle more, and part of that was devel­op­ing an utter dis­taste for pro­fes­sion­al sports in gen­er­al, and for NBA hoops in par­tic­u­lar. A big part of it is the mon­ey: there is sim­ply no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the kind of remu­ner­a­tion that pro ath­letes demand. (Of course, I would advo­cate a strict salary cap for every­one – no one on earth needs more than, say, a mil­lion a year – but that is very much a top­ic for anoth­er time.) My atti­tude has a soft­ened quite a bit in recent years. I would go watch base­ball any­time, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do so. In what threat­ens to become a guilty plea­sure I find I con­sis­tent­ly enjoy watch­ing NFL games when the oppor­tu­ni­ty aris­es, but again, I would not seek it out. Hock­ey is a mys­tery, as is soc­cer, and I don’t feel left out of any­thing engag­ing in either case.

But there is some­thing about pro bas­ket­ball that I find utter­ly revolt­ing, although I haven’t both­ered to give it enough thought to fig­ure out exact­ly why. It is not the game itself, since I thor­ough­ly enjoy NCAA bas­ket­ball. Per­haps it is a cul­tur­al thing (I tru­ly and sin­cere­ly hope it is not a sub­li­mat­ed race thing on my part); my impres­sion of NBA play­ers in gen­er­al is low on gen­til­i­ty and heavy on rock star atti­tudes and thug­gish lifestyles. Per­haps unfair, but that is my stereo­type, and it leaves me with no desire to see these over­paid man-tow­ers pos­ture about and pre­tend they are doing some­thing that mat­ters, or that they are even play­ing a game.

David Schwartz of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa School of Jour­nal­ism and Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tion post­ed a piece ear­li­er this week on the emer­gent trend of sports play­ers tak­ing con­trol of their own mes­sage, or at least attempt­ing to do so, through use of the social media tools avail­able to them, and in so doing bypass­ing the jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sion. (Full dis­clo­sure: Schwartz is mar­ried to my wife’s cousin.) The hyped, script­ed and mar­ket­ed LeBron Show of the past week or so is cer­tain­ly a defin­i­tive exam­ple of this, and I am sure, as folks like blog­ger Andrew Miller have already observed, that peo­ple will be sub­ject­ing this episode to inter­dis­ci­pli­nary exam­i­na­tion for years to come. Whether this is the har­bin­ger of a new way of doing things, or an his­tor­i­cal­ly-iso­lat­ed series of inci­dents, I will leave for the media schol­ars to decide.

For me, the whole fren­zied cir­cus of the past week seems just a fur­ther esca­la­tion in the infla­tion of pro­fes­sion­al sports from an enter­tain­ment indus­try into some­thing that it has no hope of being: mean­ing­ful and sig­nif­i­cant. Clear­ly LeBron James is a gift­ed ath­lete (I read that in sev­er­al places, so it must be true), but that his employ­ment deci­sion should be allowed to effect such pas­sions among so many peo­ple is gross to me. This goes back to my most fun­da­men­tal qualm about pro­fes­sion­al sports: fan­dom. It baf­fles me that so many peo­ple will invest their emo­tion­al well-being so heav­i­ly in the exploits of a small group of extreme­ly fit indi­vid­u­als, in the out­come of a game of sport. Some­times I think I get what the draw is, some­thing to do with the human con­di­tion, the urge to feel a part of some­thing larg­er than our­selves, or some­thing. I sup­pose many could well ques­tion my devo­tion to the Catholic reli­gion, and it is prob­a­bly open to the same sort of cri­tique: it is my “some­thing larg­er” of which I am a part. I won’t try to defend it; it works for me, just as clear­ly die-hard fol­low­ers of sports fran­chis­es have latched onto some­thing that must work for them. But it just doesn’t make sense to me, and I won­der if it ever will.

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