Lebron James Is Only What You Want Him To Be
Ta-Nehisi Coates thinks about the way we think about sports:
Sports narratives strike me as a kind of modern mythology. We see the players as the gladiators of our cities, as champions for our small nations, and thus, emblematic of something about us. Very little of this is literally true. I don’t know that the Saints winning the Super Bowl helped New Orleans in any significantly demonstrable way. But some people there feel that it did, and that’s probably worth something.
More than that, the mythology which fans invest in teams and players is not strictly of their own making. Owners and players peddle it to them, and encourage them on in their tribalism. It’s not clear to me that the Pittsburgh Steelers are any more “working class” than the Miami Dolphins. But I understand the point. It’s a story. It’s a narrative.
This seems like a pretty reasonable analogy to me, especially if you’ll let me argue (or at least reason) from anecdote for a minute: I became obsessed with baseball lore at roughly the same time in my childhood that I became obsessed with Greek and other mythologies. The great sports stories—whether recent or ancient—are stories of competition that can be told with variation. When we talk about the “great moments” and legends of sports, fandom, or bias, or variation, or whatever you choose to call it is acceptable. There’s something other than mere fact that’s at the core of the story, and the reason we tell it. Sports as narrative, and as a kind of contemporary replacement for myth explains the acceptance among (for example) fans of Kentucky or Duke basketball, or the Yankees, of the way others view their teams: “Well, they need a villain,” is something I’ve heard from all three.* And, perhaps, an ambivalence among some Cubs fans about the prospect of actually winning a World Series—by changing the narrative of the Cubs, it would change the narrative and the meaning of being a Cubs fan. And just look at what the Red Sox have transformed into since 2004.
But TNC’s post, and the title of this one, both point toward the matter of Lebron James, who was faced with a narratival choice between the doomed loyal soldier or pursuit of individual glory, and chose the latter, for which he is deemed a traitor by the people of Cleveland and a villain by most sports fans outside of Miami. That we live in a time when, as Jerry Seinfeld pointed out long ago, we root for jerseys rather than players is disregarded, as is the fact that Lebron James is hardly alone in choosing to go to a better team or take more money rather than remain with the one that drafted and developed him. (He is, I suppose, alone in causing a media frenzy in the week leading up to an obnoxiously narcissistic TV special—but as Matt Yglesias points out, my narcissistic moments uniformly fail to raise considerable sums for charitable purposes and probably run the risk of causing more genuine hurt to relationships.) Even the teams do this, tossing aside former heroes with sagging batting averages and weighty contracts—and, in many of these cases, we accept it, either with relief or with grudging acknowledgment of the “good of the team.” Cal Ripkin and Tony Gwynn are revered because their connections to their teams were exceptional, not because they were great athletes who adhered to the rule.
Excluding, of course, those who were looking for a reason to dislike him, what makes the non-Cleveland reaction to James’ departure for Miami even more exceptional is the fact that this is not like Akhilles getting ticked off mid-battle and switching to the Trojan side. It’s more analogous to Akhilles joining Ajax and Agamemnon in a single city-state** to dominate the rest and hog all the glory that’s out there to be won. But, as the example should make clear, he’s also sacrificing a degree of individual glory for a shared type—a communal, or team glory. The Iliad, in one respect, is all about how hard it is to hold together a super-team; and we all saw the disaster that once was Team U.S.A—until Coach K., a villain on his home-stage, fixed it. Maybe all that building the current Heat took was sacrificing a little ego and a little money, but sacrificing ego isn’t as easy to do as we like to think. It might, in fact, be something of a genuine sacrifice in the sphere of competition.
On the other hand, will any of this allay the grief and anger of Cleveland fans who, like several friends of mine, live and die with every second of each of that city’s teams? Of course not—and it shouldn’t. They’re justified in feeling like they—or at least the team they care about—has been betrayed. Maybe, to a certain extent, so are the rest of us are, too—but we’ve demonstrated that what we really crave in sports and in our contemporary narratives of legend is the virtue and the story of loyalty more than that of self-sacrifice or submission to the team.
*For the record, Kentucky basketball is not a villain, just a misunderstood hero. You know, like Odysseus or Han Solo. I’ll just grudgingly accept your desperate narratival needs for a “bad guy”—but c’mon! That’s what we have Duke for! And while I’m on the record, I really don’t care that much about this final, but I’m probably rooting for Dallas. On the other hand, I can’t root against Pat Riley, because he played for Kentucky once upon a time. I just come running whenever people say words like “myth” and “narrative.”
**I went to ancient imagery because I think the comparison to the Greek polis lets us see that it’s not changing sides among true or permanent enemies (except in some cases, like Boston and New York, or Rick Pitino) but among permanent competitors who are at times enemies but at others grudgingly reliant on the others. While I’m at it, I should also mention that Lebron isn’t really that much like Akhilles.