The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view


Posted by Ron George on December 2, 2010

Lebron James of the Miami Heat, formerly of the Cleveland Cavaliers

Labron James: Not a victim of Cleveland fans’ incivility

I thought I would enjoy watching the homecoming of LeBron James to Cleveland. I was mistaken.

I’m not much of a sports fan, and I was reminded Thursday night why that’s true. There’s been a dramatic cultural shift in the nature of sport not only since I played high school varsity athletics but since I lost interest, oh, about 40 years ago.

Once upon a time, competition meant do your best against an opponent doing his best. Someone wins, someone loses – but it wasn’t about beating the other guy. It was about superior performance on any given day. We learned how to win and how to lose. Winners and losers  learned to be gracious. Good game, we’d say to each other. Winners: Better luck next time. Losers: You won fair and square.

It’s not like that any more, at least on television. Athletes still play the game, but we who watch have let media-hype script athletic contests into morality plays. What’s worse, this appalling spinnery has infected our live observation in the sport. We on the sidelines have become players, and our sportsmanship is wretched.

OK, the ratchet had been spun almost to the breaking point for Thursday’s game between the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron James left Cleveland this season after seven years on the squad. He played his free-agent card, went to the Miami Heat for megabucks and a better chance of winning an NBA title. Translation: Pro basketball is a business; players play for money, some of it in very large bills. No one should be surprised when sports talent goes to the highest bidder. It’s the American way. I don’t like it, either; but, come on Cleveland. Did you really think Mr. James would play there for ever? The whole point of professional sport is to make as much money as the market will bear as long as one has the goods. Mr. James was merely maximizing his earnings per share. (Who wouldn’t like a piece of his action?)

When the hype about Thursday’s game reached even to National Public Radio, I decided to watch. After all, someone said Cleveland fans would be aware that “the whole world is watching.” The message seemed to be, “Show some class, folks.” They didn’t; but then, what home team crowd ever does?

Home-court advantage has been turned into home-court bias. Once upon a time, the advantage simply meant that most in the crowd were for the home team. Now, however, in every way made possible by pumped up public address systems and announcers, lighting effects and even flames, for God’s sake, shooting from the scoreboard, it’s about beating up the visitors. No more hospitality. No more welcoming the stranger. No more respectful, sportsmanlike silence during free throws. The home-court crowd wants to help defeat the enemy, which used to be known as the visiting team worthy of our courtesy.

I know I’m out of touch on all of this, way behind the times. I’m free not to participate, and it’s likely that I won’t. After all, I haven’t been much of a sports fan for more than four decades. Why should I begin now? It’s just that, well, I saw something really ugly on the face of our society Thursday night.

Cleveland fans were not there to watch a basketball game. They were there hoping for the personal humiliation of LeBron James. I don’t know the whole story, and yes, I do believe it says something awful about our society that we’re willing to make millionaires of professional athletes and paupers of school teachers. There may have been something classless about James’ abdication. Still, the venomous atmosphere in Cleveland Thursday night was palatable. Broadcasters said the air was electric, but it seemed from here more as though there were a fog of hatred over the court – and not among the athletes, it must be said, but only the fans. (Fan, incidentally, is short for “fanatic.”) Near the end of the game, a phalanx of law-enforcement officers cordoned the Miami bench.

Cleveland fans had been whipped into a frenzy by the media – television, blogs, sports analysts. They made T-shirts: “Victim,” and “Lyin’ king.” They booed James every time he touched the ball. They cheered when he missed a shot – and to his credit, he didn’t miss many, especially in the third quarter, when he added 24 of 38 points he scored in three quarters. (He sat out the fourth.) Cleveland fans showed their ass, while James put on a basketball scoring clinic for anyone in the nation who tuned in TNT.

I’m no fan of LeBron James, but I’m delighted that he was not cowed by the hype and hometown abuse. It’ll be a long time before I look forward to another NBA game. I don’t like what sports arena behavior says about our society or the sunken state of how we conceive of athletic competition. Once upon a time, sport was an affirmation of something of value in our body politic; now, it seems as though it’s just another excuse for mass media manipulation and the further erosion of our national character.

It is simply and sadly pathetic that we’ve let ourselves be driven into such a muddy morass.

Miami, by the way, won the game 118-90.

The better team won. They won fair and square, and the Cleveland athletes know it.

I wonder, though, whether Cleveland fans will ever recover their dignity – and whether American sport will ever recover its soul.



5 Responses to “Homecoming”

  1. Patsy Durham said

    I believe you are missing the point when you apply these observations to “sports” alone. I think it all boils down to “good manners”. “Good sportsmanship” is based upon “good manners”. Unfortunately, they’re not taught any more, apparently because they are not valued any more. One experiences “bad manners” almost everywhere nowadays – on the internet, at the mall, in airports, dangerously so on the highway, even in our public schools. Sad, really . . .

  2. Jim A said

    I too, am not much of a fan. And I did not watch the game. But the general tenor of mean-spirited verbal and emotional violence is a reason I don’t waste much energy on professional sports.
    One thing did cross my mind as I read the opening paragraphs. Some years ago I read? heard? an essay on the evolution of sports coverage and the role played by coverage of the Olympics. This author, at least, cited the coverage of the Olympics on ABC when they first won the bid to broadcast them. They turned every event into a sort of morality play. There was a potential hero and villain for every contest – in part to drum up interest in sports that many in the audience had never played or even seen before, involving athletes from places we had never heard of. So the “backstory” became the focus and the actual performance was almost an afterthought.
    The approach has spilled over into almost all sports coverage and here was aken to an extreme. An illustration that anything – taken too far – turns poisonous.

  3. George H. said

    Ron, what you said here is exactly why I place professional sports in the same category as war, crime and other forms of injustice. It violates the Gospels’ message and has negative value in human existence. In our house, the sports page goes directly to the recycle bin.

  4. Ralph Willis said

    Hi Ron, Well said my friend. I occurs to me that class when applied to sports fan-antics, some athletes and too damn many politicians is a two syllable word. Cl-ass, the first syllable is silent. Write(sic) On!!!!!!!!!!!! Ralph

  5. Tom said

    Dear Ron, Could you be imagining a more perfect past than actually existed? Part of the architecture of our mind to do so, I think. A bit of the dualistic nature of consciousness, eh? Other than that-well said. Blessings, tom

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