Sunday, July 11, 2010

Suck It, Cleveland

There certainly has been a lot of publicity in the world of professional basketball regarding one Lebron James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers and going over to the Miami Heat. You would think that God came down to the Vatican and told them, "Listen, I'm done with you people and I'm not your God anymore. I'm becoming a Buddhist." The announcement brought a lot of weeping and wailing and rending of garments (literally - there were lots of videos of people ripping apart Lebron James tee-shirts and actually setting them on fire) from the benighted residents of the Mistake on the Lake (as Lake Erie-hugging Cleveland is sometimes unkindly called). But what does this very public NBA beat-down of Cleveland really mean in the long view?

I will gladly admit that I am probably one of the least sports-oriented people on the planet. I think all sports are a complete waste of time and a really frivolous and unproductive way to let your life slip away. I realize it's all just entertainment, and I see very little difference between the Big Three sports (baseball, football and basketball) and professional wresting, something at which everyone finds justifiable to sneer and regard as a vulgar, down-market, lowest-common-denominator pastime for the unwashed masses who live in trailer parks by the railroad tracks. So the James ship-jumping didn't even register on my radar. I ranked it alongside or just a little below the latest panty-free romp by some trashy D-list Hollywood celebutard or Sarah Palin's most recent bout of intellectual diarrhea. But to a lot of people this was an earth-shaking event which took on a life and importance usually reserved for terrorist attacks or medical breakthroughs.

I can see how this could be reasonably important to the two cities involved, and also for the couple of other towns that tried to lure James to their teams. Looking a little bit below the surface you see this mostly revolves around money. Lebron James is a major draw for the sport, much as disgraced Ambien enthusiast Tiger Woods is to golf. James certainly puts butts in seats for the games in which he plays, and that translates into elevated ticket sales and corollary expenditures like paper cups of warm beer and hot dogs that have been boiling in a gigantic pot since Memorial Day. Throw in other taxable merchandise such as shirts, coffee mugs and bobble-heads, and you've got a tidy little revenue stream for whichever city can lay claim to being the fiefdom of King James.

But there are two things that I apparently never got the memo on regarding professional sports. One is the enormous disconnect I perceive between what pro athletes are paid and what their services seem to be worth. Does Lebron James, or any athlete for that matter, deserve an eight-figure salary for working only part of the year doing what most people regard as a game? As far as I'm concerned, and I've said this at least one other time in this blog, any police officer, teacher, nurse or firefighter anywhere in this country performs a more valuable service in one day than Mr. James or Mr. Woods or any other athlete performs in their entire career. But this is what I call (somewhat melodramatically, I admit) the "poisoned fruit" of our capitalistic economy; that is, you will get paid according to the demand for your services, not their intrinsic worth.

The other thing I don't "get" is the emotional connection that fans like to imagine exists between a professional sports team and whatever city they are playing for at the moment. Fans in Cleveland took Lebron James' decision to bolt as a personal insult of the highest magnitude. Plenty of them seemed deeply distressed and offended, as if the honor and virtue of their mother was very publicly questioned. You can see the flip side of that outrage when a team wins a very critical game or a title - fans go berserk and rampage the streets, flashing their "number one" finger at the news cameras and somehow interpreting the outcome as a major accomplishment on their part. People, listen to me: they are professional athletes. They are play-for-pay, and they could care less if their paycheck comes from Cleveland or Miami or Phoenix or Boston or Los Angeles. Their fan base is nothing but a monolithic, faceless cash machine to them. Thus, one day Lebron James can be the shining light of Cleveland, worshiped by hundreds of thousands of residents, and the next day he is reviled and cursed as a modern-day Benedict Arnold times a thousand, and his images are being ripped down all over the Cleveland area. If all that love, hero-worship and emotional attachment is real, how can it be turned on its ear in a second?

Interestingly, the general manager, I guess, of the Cleveland Cavs really jumped the rails when he lambasted James on an official website in very strong, colorful terms as the perpetrator of some horrendous, unforgivable crime against his adopted home town. Realizing that James bailed on the team because he considered his chances for bringing home an NBA title better down South Beach way, the manager blurted out a public promise to the Cleveland fans that he will "personally guarantee" them an NBA title next season. Whoa, over-promising a little there, dude? Let's do the math on that one, shall we:

1) The Cleveland Cavaliers did not secure a title this year +
2) Their super-star player will not be with them anymore. =
3) NBA championship next season? NOT LIKELY.

Cleveland has been one of those hard-scrabble, rust-belt cities who have been gleefully trashed on a regular basis for decades, if not centuries, by the rest of the country. Sure, the city is run-down and dirty and a pale shell of its former glory, but what older U.S. city east of the Mississippi isn't? I lived in Cleveland for three years while attending college, and it's really not that bad a place. Faint praise, I realize, but I'm doing my best here. I can see how the long-suffering, perennially ragged-on hometown fans kind of snapped whenever their star player bolted from lovely Cuyahoga county. But in the grand scheme of things, residents of Cleveland should not pin their sense of self-worth, or the worth of their city, on the money-driven choices of a professional athlete. Maybe they should have taken the high road, wished James luck in dealing with those horrendous palmetto bugs and the alligators that will be sauntering across his lawn, and turned their attention to making their team and their city as good as they can be. Screaming and cursing and banging your head against a wall is not the way to go. It's bad for the wall, and it earns you nothing but a headache.

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