I don’t like to write about sports. Many people find this odd. After all, I dedicated almost half my life to playing sports, so why wouldn’t I want to write about them?
But to me, a reluctance to follow Jason Whitlock’s career path is perfectly logical. I don’t much like sports, so I don’t much like writing about sports.
It hasn’t always been this way. I used to like nothing more than to watch the athletic feats of others. When I was eight, I cried when the Kansas Jayhawks lost to Duke in the 1986 Final Four. My brothers and I kept makeshift box scores during the Kansas City Royals games of our youths.
Then I reached the pinnacle of a particular sports world – I became a really good basketball player, eventually playing at that sport’s highest level, the NBA. There, reality began to tear away at the fantasy world I had created, making me exactly like anyone who’s ever built a career and then been disappointed by it. A woman starts out on a path to become a public defender and ends up doing contract law for Halliburton. A man sets out to change lives through teaching English but finds himself guiding Vo-Tech students through the inner workings of the circular saw.
I dreamed of sharing locker rooms with like-minded professional basketball players, only to find that the only parts of our minds that were alike were the ones devoted to digestion and respiration.
Big deal, right? So my life was a lot like everyone’s. Who cares? Except that, in the example I lived, the loss of innocence seemed even more pronounced. Money ruled everything – which is hardly news – but it did so in insidious, disguised ways. The players didn’t care about the fans, the game they were playing, or whether they won or lost. They cared only about a next contract, another endorsement deal. Weary coaches stood idly by, stripped of authority by those players’ clout. And owners, worried only about the potential value of their respective franchises, smiled smugly while convincing the outside world that their landfills were playgrounds.
I found it all disgusting, and I resolved that I wouldn’t dedicate any more of my life to it than I had to.
Recently, LeBron James, after years of cultivating the public image of an easy-going superstar-in-waiting, revealed to basketball fans some of the putridity that I’ve long known to exist. His behavior – in the weeks leading up to his nationally-televised announcement event and in that event itself – displayed his nature better than any one-hour Oprah interview could ever have hoped to do.
LeBron James is a self-centered numbskull.
LeBron James has every right to be a self-centered numbskull. Not only that; I’ve known that he was a self-centered numbskull ever since I spent time on the court with him. My NBA career high of, ahem, six points came against his Cleveland Cavaliers, after all. And, despite what my paltry scoring output might indicate, I was playing meaningful minutes that night with the Chicago Bulls, which meant that I was on the court with – or rather, against – James.
I marveled at his size, speed, and grace. He seemed to take up the entire midcourt as he flew toward the basket to make some play or another, all of it done at breakneck speed.
I also marveled at how mean he was to his teammates. His cold-eyed glare when one of them had the nerve to miss a shot. The way he spoke to them; the way he carried himself around Cavaliers staff; the aura of jerkitude that – had we all been in the Army, circa 1952, and not in the NBA, circa 2004 – would have gotten him a midnight date with a sock filled with bars of soap.
But, no surprise here, I thought. As far as I could tell, most NBA players were neither kind nor well-adjusted.
The only surprise was that everyone else hadn’t figured that out yet. Which is why I was – and stayed – confused. I’ve never understood how adult fans are able to turn a blind eye to their treatment at the hands of professional (and college, for that matter) athletes.
I understand the need to believe in something larger than oneself – how much fun it is to belong to a group that is rooting for a team. And I understand the hypothesis that sport fulfills the male fantasy of perpetual war, sans casualties. (Except the injury-related ones.) I’ll even grant you that sport is a way for people to connect – fathers and sons, especially – when they otherwise wouldn’t.
But it seems that the surliness of the athletes would trump all of that.
Until now, it hasn’t. But my hunch is that LeBron James has changed everything.
One of the curiouser aspects of current sports culture is the acceptance that athletes should – and always will – get paid exorbitant sums to play the games they do. We forget that it hasn’t always been this way. Bob Cousy’s first contract with the Celtics was for $9,000. In 1955, Mickey Mantle was paid $25,000 for his services to the Yankees.
The Miami Heat will pay LeBron James somewhere between $15,000,000 and $20,000,000 per year.
When faced with these numbers, people turn into 2006-era Lehman Brothers employees; they think it will always be this way, forgetting that professional athletes have been able to support themselves on their athletics-related salaries for only the last fifty years or so.
It won’t always be this way. Or, I think it won’t.
This could be a very good thing. As fulfilling pastimes go, sports rank pretty low. (The spectating part, I mean. Sports as a participatory event seem to be a very good thing. Unless you have weak ACLs.)
At its core, watching sports is escapism. Watching sports does not help people grapple with the big issues of existence and purpose and, in general, the full catastrophe that is, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, our lives. That’s what reading and writing and painting and listening to music are for.
Oh, sure, there are those who disagree – those who paint sport spectatory as a more profound pastime. And sometimes they are right. Sometimes, sport achieves something close to truth, justice, and beauty.
But let’s be honest. Most people watch LeBron James play basketball so they can forget their lives, not so they can remember them.
This wouldn’t give me pause, except that I’ve long known that those people are being swindled. I understand how it works; I’ve been in the trenches, if I can borrow from every sports journalist who’s ever lived and steal a sport-as-war aphorism.
This is what I’ve come to know:
Athletes are disdainful of their fans because they don’t understand them. They can’t imagine why someone could exalt another human just because that human can put a ball in a (choose from): basket, strike zone, outstretched set of arms. Eventually, this imbalance leads to a state of cognitive dissonance and, finally, to a loss of respect. The athlete thinks, How can I respect someone who thinks so highly of something so pointless?
The athlete can’t be blamed, per se. The fan is at fault; he’s the one who has decided that LeBron James is his Batman/Supreme Leader/Deity.
I would come down hard on that fan but, because I’ve been on both sides, I know how well the machine works. I know how good the NBA is at hiding the actual personalities of its athletes. I know that NBA Cares and Read To Achieve are farces. I know how the players grumble when they’re asked to engage in community service, even when that community is paying their exorbitant salaries. I know how Shawn Marion feels about signing autographs. (Bad.)
Now, thanks to fans’ appetites for more coverage, more access, more information, the façade is being chipped away. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook show just how dumb and one-dimensional Shawn Marion is. A 24-hour news cycle catches Michael Vick in his every questionable act. A thirst for money and attention provokes ESPN to allow a 25 year-old manchild to take aim on human decency, fandom, and the English language, all on national television.
I couldn’t be happier. Not because I want sports to fail; I like the idea of sports, if not the current execution. And not even because I don’t want people to be dumb or to be assholes. There’s nothing wrong with being dumb or being an asshole. The problem arises when the imbecile or the jerk is sold as something else.
Which is why I’m happy.
I’m happy because I’m interested in truth. I don’t think athletes should be held in such high regard. Regard, yes. But high regard? I think not. They’re usually unworthy of adulation, let alone worship.
Keep in mind that I was…am…have been one of those athletes. And that, despite my own protestations to the contrary, I was a very good one. I have seen the top of the mountain. It was an ugly place.
I’m glad you’re getting to see it too.
So, to Mr. LeBron Raymone James: Thanks for helping. You’ve made it easier for people to learn the raw, unadulterated truth: that your profound ability as a basketball player is a freakish sidecar of your personality and not an indicator of a larger greatness.
Perhaps, this time, those people will begin to understand that you are the rule, and not the exception.
For more from Paul…
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