Last Thursday night, an estimated 8.4 million people watched with bated breath as LeBron James announced that he would be leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to sign with the Miami Heat. Then they got mad. In Cleveland in particular, people began burning LeBron James jerseys and chanting their displeasure in massive crowds, vilifying the man upon whom they had placed all their hopes of winning an NBA title. For long-suffering Cleveland sports fans, this was a betrayal of the highest caliber, and Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cavaliers franchise even wrote a scathing open letter in which he blasted what he called a “shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own.” The reaction to all this certainly has been enough to shock even the most ardent of sports fans.
But it shouldn’t. We live in a world where soccer players who make mistakes get literally murdered by their fans (see here and here). Where angry little league baseball coaches punch their nine-year old players in the face for getting ejected over a loss of temper. Where people are literally willing to poison opposing teams’ players, all in the name of competitive sports. There’s no question; we take our sports way too seriously. But why?
Let me begin to answer that with a little anecdote from my youth. The year was 1979. A mere two years before that, the Dallas Cowboys had defeated my hometown Denver Broncos in Superbowl XII. I wasn’t even born yet. On that fateful Sunday in August of 1979, the Broncos faced the Cowboys again, in a meaningless preseason game. I still wasn’t born yet. Why? My mother refused to tell anyone she was in labor until the game ended, because she hated the Cowboys so much. Seven years and about five months later, those same Broncos faced the New York Football Giants in Superbowl XXI. My family painted our 1973 Jeep Wagoneer in Broncos Blue and Orange, with each of our favorite players’ numbers written over our windows (mine was #77, the albino rhino himself, Karl Mecklenburg). After my beloved Broncos lost to a singularly amazing performance that ensured Phil Simms’ place in Canton, I cried for two full days. There were several such occasions where I was forced to endure similar pain and heartbreak, but none ever hurt quite as much as that game. Finally, by 1997, when I was eighteen years old, I got my wish. In one of the objectively best Superbowls ever played, my beloved Broncos finally broke through and bested the Green Bay Packers in Superbowl XXXII. My entire family was racked with sobs of relief, for the weight had, at long last, been lifted from our shoulders. We were champions. Of course, we weren’t, the Denver Broncos were, but that didn’t matter to us. We felt like winners.
Skip ahead to 2009. On my second marriage, with two kids, having endured eight separate layoffs, and in the second painful year of being woefully underemployed with no potential end in sight. I got way too into fantasy football. Week after week I would send out another sixty to eighty resumes to potential employers, fill out another hundred or so job applications. I would hear back from one or two, who would tell me that I was either too inexperienced for the job (while having the qualifications), or overly qualified and would therefore be overly expensive to hire. My wife would complain that I wasn’t bringing in enough income (I wasn’t, but there was nothing I could do about it). My kids would complain that they didn’t want to have macaroni and cheese again tonight. Then Sunday would come around, and I would have nothing left to hope for but a little bit of good luck from my fantasy football team. At least with that, I could feel like a winner. But it didn’t happen. Week after week I would outscore everyone in my league, except the person I was playing. Frank Gore’s two eighty yard touchdown runs against the Seahawks? My opponent that week had him on their team. It would be the straw that broke the camel’s back, every week. My family hated Sunday, because I was simply too angry at what appeared to be a conspiracy to ruin my life to enjoy any time with them. The other players in my league eventually got tired of my constant griping about how, despite being on the top of the power rankings the entire year, I had a losing record. No one wanted to play with me anymore, only adding to the sense of dejection and inefficacy. Then finally I got a great new job, and all those other problems went away. I no longer care if the Broncos win the Superbowl. I enjoy basketball, and the Nuggets are my favorite team, but I don’t get bent out of shape over their losses like I used to. It’s amazing how, with a little economic success coming my way, I no longer have to place my hopes in my local sports franchise to feel like I have some meaning in the world.
It’s not new. Ancient Rome held gladiatorial contests for the same reason. Every time the masses got a little too unruly, due to their continual abuse and poverty, the Emperor would appease them with bread and circuses to calm the mob and make them feel like things were okay. If people weren’t facing the obvious hopelessness of a nearly 20% unemployment rate and an economy that seems designed more to benefit executives who outsource to China over we the people of the United States, there would be a lot less real concern about things like LeBron’s supposed “betrayal.” People would still care about sports, of course. I still enjoy sports and root for my home team whenever they play, regardless of the sport. But they would be much less inclined to take out their feelings of frustration and rage in a sports-related fashion. Instead of a little league coach punching his players in the face, he might punch UnitedHealth CEO Stephen J. Hemsley, or his ilk, who are the real reason we have such feelings in the first place. As much as people need to focus on things like joblessness and the ensuing hopelessness, and solving those problems, they will continue to be tricked into directing their anger at people like LeBron James. After all, Scott Norwood still can’t safely show his face in Buffalo, NY.