The parsons of the press box have been working overtime of late, raising weighty questions that impinge upon our enjoyment of the world of fun and games.
How, for instance, should we regard the renewed gridiron brilliance of Michael Vick, the quarterback notorious for his crimes against the canine species? Should we cringe at the prospect of an ex-con becoming an NFL MVP, as do some ink-stained moralists?
Does Tiger Woods’ dismal play over the past year reflect divine retribution for his taste in women? And how about Brett Favre, the renowned good guy and family man --a grandfather, for heaven’s sake!-- propositioning a female New York Jets’ employee during his 2008 season in the Big Apple? Should it at least cost him a jeans’ commercial?
During my columnizing days I took a pass on most such issues, partly because my newspaper generally ignored transgressions of the flesh and partly because I had few illusions about the character of many of the men whose athletic exploits we follow. On an aesthetic level, I have no problem separating the art from the artist and can, say, enjoy a Wagner opera even though the composer was an anti-Jewish putz. Further, no one who has passed a stadium players’ entrance after a big-league game of any sort can doubt the sorry state of monogamy in jockland
However (there’s always a “however”), I confess to being intrigued about the low esteem in which the marvelously talented LeBron James has been held since his July decision to exercise his free-agent rights and, along with fellow free-agent Chris Bosh, jump from the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers to join already-there star Dwayne Wade with the Miami Heat.
Cheers used to follow LeBron wherever he went. Now boos do, and not just from the fans of the team he jilted. The outfit that publishes the “Q Score” popularity ratings puts him on its short list of most-disliked current-day athletes, right up there with the aforementioned Vick and Woods and the blatant me-first guys Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, of football fame. James is a bonafide public enemy, and if he’s not No. 1 (Vick is) he’s close.
What’s up here, anyway? As far as I know, James has committed no crimes, and his domestic situation (two kids by his “girlfriend”) is par for the course among big-time athletes. If he’s been playing in the bimbo league his partners have yet to reveal themselves to the tabs.
The manner in which he announced his decision to change teams—on an over-hyped and overblown prime-time “special” on ESPN—certainly weighs against him, but he’s a young guy (he’ll turn 26 on Dec. 30) who’s never been to college, so I chalk that one up against his advisors, who should have known better.
Public statements surrounding his move fanned the flames. Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert’s idiotic rant, in which he called the player “callous,” “selfish,” “heartless” and “cowardly,” among other things, fit into that category. So did James’ own assertion that he was moving primarily because he wanted “to be able to win championships.” Fact is, the Cavs were a good team for most of his seven-season tenure in Cleveland, and made the NBA finals in 2007, so he just as well could have accomplished that by staying. If he’d merely said “Where would you rather work—Miami or Cleveland?” he would have gotten a laugh, and some sympathy.
James has opined that his race has been a factor in the reaction against him, and he’s right—it always is in such matters. But he also was black when he was lionized. The mediocre play of the James-Wade-Bosh Heat has subjected him to criticism, but that followed the furor over his signing and, thus, couldn’t have contributed to it.
Alas for LeBron, his sin isn’t in any book, or easily atoned. It’s against our sense of fandom and taps the unease many have felt since the advent of player free agency. Most of us root for the teams we do for reasons beyond reason or, sometimes, even understanding. Fairly early in life we form an attachment to a team, usually one based in or near a city where we live, and that’s it—we’re stuck with it forever. We can no more change it than we can our skin color, shoe size or other intrinsic attribute. Perversely, failure can strengthen the bond; otherwise, no one would be a Cubs’ fan.
Our allegiance is to the name on our team’s jerseys, not to the players who wear them, and it can blind us to the inequities our team sports perpetrate in the name of competitive balance. If when we left college we’d been told we’d been drafted by, say, a newspaper or accounting firm in Fargo, ND, and had to work for it for several years before thinking of going elsewhere, we’d have called a lawyer, but we smilingly accept it when jocks are so treated.
It’s OK for teams to trade players, whether or not they want to be traded. It’s also OK for the New York Yankees to flex their wallet and sign just about anyone they desire; that’s what teams do and we only wish ours could. But woe be unto the player who picks the team he wants to play for and –horrors!—persuades another good player to join him. Where does he get off doing that?
I mean, it’s downright UnAmerican!
Well, it should be.
HOLIDAY NOTE—‘Tis the season for giving gifts, and I have a recommendation for some really nifty ones. They’re my books in the “For the Love of…” series, published by Triumph Books, wonderfully illustrated by Mark Anderson and suitable for fans of all ages. Titles include the baseball Cubs, Yanks, Mets, Red Sox, Cardinals and Tigers, baseball Hall of Famers, golfing greats, the Green Bay Packers, Ohio State Buckeyes and Georgia Bulldogs. To check them out, click on the Triumph Books or amazon.com links above.