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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