1st and Five: The Weekly Halfdown July 4-10 2010

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Dear Internet:

So - whose career is more over?  Lindsay's...or Mel Gibson's?  They played that tape, Mel.  That's a life sentence in the entertainment penitentiary.  I won't say no possibility of parole; Mel made lots of money for lots of years for lots of people; life is long and the rehab centers are open 24/7; but it's a Charles Manson situation; he's got a swastika carved in his virtual head now; I wouldn't expect to see too many repeats of Lethal Weapon 3 on TBS in the coming years. 

I sort of like Lindsay's defiance.  I mean, it's presumably chemically fueled and has landed her in prison, but metaphorically and now, literally, she has been telling the world to screw off for several years.  I'd like to do that; I can't afford to do that, but I'd gain emotional satisfaction from doing that.  And from leaving my underwear at home.  That would also be good. 

But instead of that - Tendown 34.

First - Everything Ends, and Usually Badly, Otherwise it Wouldn't end.

I went to high school, undergrad, and law school in northern Ohio.  I finished up when I was 24 and had a decision to make.  I could stay "at home" - or I could move to a place where I would prefer to be.  Someplace warmer, perhaps. 

That's the first place where I walk into the LeBron James discussion.  Cleveland doesn't own him; he's a 25 year old man with options and wants to live somewhere other than Ohio.  String him up.  Chris Bosh left Toronto this week, but yet the Raptor owner was somehow able to contain his need to call it a cowardly betrayal. Dan Gilbert, who has spent years profiting from the labor of James, decided to label a free agent signing with another team as deserting a region. 

Curt Flood was 40 years ago; we don't assign athletes based on region like Lou Gehrig walking from Columbia to Yankee Stadium anymore.  Is he obligated to work in Cleveland the rest of his life because he went to high school in northern Ohio?  At what point in his life would LeBron James deciding he wanted to work outside of Ohio not be "desertion." 

I'm guessing it's not too many years from now.  Shaq's unemployed today, negotiating (or maybe he's signed, no one really cares) witht he Atlanta Hawks - not too many years ago he was the best basketball player in the world and more famous than LeBron is today.  Now, maybe he's going to backup Zaza Pachuilia or maybe he's not, I'm not really sure.  When its the team showing the athlete the door - that's just part of doing business.  When it's the athlete who leaves - it's disloyalty. 

Because while the lyrics of Gilbert's letter are asinine, we get the music - right - he's losing the best basketball player in the world, and that's a good sized loss.  I'd never burn a jersey, but as a 49er fan I felt upset when TO engineered his way out of town, as a SFG fan I remember Brett Butler hugging Tommy Lasorda after signing with the Dodgers.  He became the enemy - I didn't call it a "cowardly betrayal" and didn't write anything as cryptically stupid as:

Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there.

...but that's how sports works - LeBron benefits from the hyperbolic, frenzied way in which we treat sports stars and this is the flip side of it.  The fans burning his jersey today were calling him King James a week ago.  The TV special is largely a red herring - Dan Gilbert has spent years making money off of an image of LeBron James as a species slightly above human; I'm guessing you wouldn't have to look too hard around his offices to find images of James in a crown elevated above his royal subjects - but last Thursday was "narcissistic self promotion"?

I think the word that is most revealing is the word "self" - because last Thursday was a ratings bonanza for ESPN and Gilbert couldn't make a dime.  And more broadly - a common complaint I heard about the James free agency tour was something like "who does LeBron think he is, acting all big?"

From grumpy old man Buzz Bissinger to usually class conscious lefty sportswriter Dave Zirin, I heard sports media over and over decry the process - why can't LeBron just do this like everyone else, why does it have to be a spectacle - Kevin Durant just signed an extension with Oklahoma City and no one noticed - why does James (quoting Bissinger) make the NBA executives "grovel" in these negotiations?

The main prism through which I see this issue is one of labor and management.  Sports media and sports fans, conditioned to slavishly worship the power relationships of the corporate state - recoil from the idea that labor ever calls the shots.  They heard about a "free agent summit" of the top players and started talking about collusion - they see James and Wade, the two best players in the NBA, leveraging their power and grow uneasy at best and angry at worst. 

Who do those guys think they are?  Just sign your contract and go back to work. 

We dislike empowered labor.  We are a country who has watched its percentage of unionized workers decrease rapidly at exactly the same time that the distance between executive pay and the pay of average workers has exploded exponentially - and instead of being outraged about that - the people who take the streets complain about imaginary socialism.  Give us less power, they shout.  Don't restrain our corporate masters in any way. 

Every single professional sports labor situation of my life - every lockout, strike, work stoppage - has seen the bulk of sports media/fans side reflexively with management.  We are held captive by our own slave mindset, and when we see James, not as defiant as Lindsay Lohan's fingernails - but nonethless utilizing the power that he has to say, I want to play in Miami, I want to play with Wade and Bosh - we see that use of power and we burn him in effigy because of it. 

(there's a racial element to this too - Ohio isn't Mississippi and Cleveland, Ohio isn't like some of the parts of Ohio where I've spent some time - but there sure are a lot of white fans burning a black man's jersey - I remember watching the vicious reaction that Barry Bonds went through in places like Houston - where an overwhelmingly white, southern crowd supporting what had been a World Series team without a single African-American player, angrily taunted an African-American superstar in ways that other players similarly accused of steroid use have never gone through.   It's not the dominant prism through which I see the story, but to what extent does Ohio embrace young black men who aren't LeBron James - seeing the reaction of the fans, the reaction of the owner - knowing what we know about the world - is it really a shock that a young, wealthy, famous African-American man might prefer South Beach to Ohio?  There is another layer of anger that is revealed when a black man who had been totally accepted into a white world does something to get that acceptance revoked.) 

At bottom, what we say we want from athletes is to do whatever they can to win titles.  We say it over and over.  Kevin Garnett stayed for years in Minnesota and heard these whispers - "maybe he is too comfortable losing, maybe it doesn't burn inside him - maybe he just likes being the big fish in the small pond instead of really trying to go for it."  Kobe Bryant ran Shaquille O'Neal out of LA - they could have won a couple of more titles - but Kobe, so the narrative went, wanted selfishly to be the man - to be the reason why the Lakers won.  Winning wasn't enough for Kobe - remember that tag - he has to be Jordan, he has to be the main man, the reason why they win.  Selfish, selfish Kobe.

So, here's LeBron James - choosing to go to Miami, where Wade is already entrenched, already a championship winner, already a guy who is the second best player in the NBA.  Going to live where he'd prefer to live, play with who he'd prefer to play with, and going where his chances to win titles are absolutely maximized.

And we kill him for it.

I live in south Florida; I'm a Warriors fan but have historically been sort of warm on the Heat - I rooted for Timmy Hardaway when he was down here; I've always liked Georgetown basketball - the whole John Thompson/Patrick Ewing mystique, so I rooted for Alonzo Mourning during his career too.

So, I'm on board.  I hope they win every year (I mean, except for the years the Warriors win - we got David Lee!  And Steph Curry - and Biedrins, and Monte!  It's all gonna happen!  GSW!  GSW! GSW!).

Go Heat.

After the jump - an offisides aided Fivedown!

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