Confessions of a Cleveland Sports Fan
Recently, the national media focused its attention on my hometown. As is generally the case when that happens, the focus was not positive. Here is AP reporter Tom Withers, offering his objective analysis of the event: “New York, Chicago, New Jersey, Los Angeles and every other [city] came up short, finishing out of the money. So did Cleveland. As it always does. This time, losing was tainted with bitterness.” The way in which all these cities “came up short,” of course, was in persuading LeBron James to play for their NBA franchises.
Withers’ disdain for the city of bitter losers was nothing new, and if the LeBron saga had been confined to the sports pages, I doubt I would be writing about it. But political commentators soon began focusing on James as well, in ways that both were unfavorable to Cleveland and touched on larger issues. Lew Rockwell highlighted the comments of fellow libertarian Skip Oliva, who wrote: “In the past week, I’ve seen the word ‘narcissism’ used dozens of times by the mainstream press to describe a 25-year-old African-American male who worked his way out of poverty, to earn millions of dollars entertaining people with his basketball skills. Apparently, his transgression was refusing to honor the collectivist whims of the press to remain in his depressed ‘hometown’ by deciding to join two of his close friends in a better part of the country.” In an expansion of this analysis, Oliva defended James on the grounds that “Every actor in the marketplace seeks his own ends through chosen means,” and he even praised James for announcing his decision to leave Cleveland on an hour-long ESPN special: “Smartly, he decided to capitalize on the process for his own interests.” Indeed, according to Oliva, criticism of James was a form of “racism” based not on his skin color but on his status as a professional athlete: “there’s a belief that professional athletes are entitled to a lesser degree of rights and social respect simply because of who they are.”
In other words, LeBron James is not only legally entitled to stiff the fans who’ve been loyal to him and to voice disdain for his native region as part of an overhyped television special, but he is entitled to do so without being criticized, since any suggestion that loyalty to a native region or to the fans who have supported him should carry weight is morally wrong and based on “collectivism” and “racism.”
A different critique was offered by another libertarian, Richard Hoste, at the Alternative Right website. According to Hoste, Cleveland fans complaining about LeBron’s move to Miami were “a bunch of losers,” whose letters to sportswriter Bill Simmons reminded Hoste of “the narratives that oppressed people like the Palestinians, Chechens and Kurds tell themselves. But they are actually concerned about the well-being of their people and its history, not some sports star who happens to sign a contract with a franchise that happens to be located in another city.” Rather than venting about LeBron’s departure, such fans should be “as passionate about hating their government” and espouse “anti-statist positions.”
For different reasons, Hoste comes to the same conclusion as Oliva: Cleveland fans, “losers” whose basketball star rationally decided to leave Cleveland for a “better part of the country,” should just shut up. But rather than prove their points, Oliva and Hoste remind us, yet again, how divorced from reality many libertarians are.
The anger of Cleveland fans at LeBron James is understandable. Cleveland last won a championship in any major sport in December 1964, when the Browns beat the Baltimore Colts to win the NFL championship. Since that time, we have known more sports disappointment than any other American city, as shown by the history whose recitation so annoyed Richard Hoste. James, an extraordinary athlete, seemed to offer the best hope of winning the championship Clevelanders craved, and he endeared himself to us by showing that he knew that history and telling us he would indeed win a championship for Cleveland. And for most of his career, James looked like he was intent to do just that, playing with passion and intensity. But this year he simply appeared to give up in the series against the Celtics, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that James didn’t care if the Cavs lost because he knew he wasn’t coming back. One of the few words James himself spoke in the period following the collapse of the Cavs in the playoffs and the announcement of his departure on ESPN was the statement that Cleveland had “an edge” in signing him to a new contract, a claim contradicted by numerous press reports following his departure. The news that James was going to announce his decision of where he was going to play next year in an hour-long TV show reinforced the notion that Cleveland had “an edge,” since few here believed that James would use such a special to turn his back on fans who had been so supportive of him. But that’s just what he did, after delegating to one of his minions the task of telling the Cavs, moments before he went on the air, that he was going to Miami, and delaying the announcement of his decision until the time for acquiring free agents who might enable the Cavaliers to soften the blow of his departure had largely passed.
More to the point, an expectation of loyalty from hometown athletes, far from being indicative of “collectivism” or “racism,” is simply part of human nature. Human beings are not atomistic individuals but social beings who naturally organize themselves into groups, a process that includes expectations of loyalty from members of the group. Oliva’s incredulity at the reaction to James’ decision to leave Cleveland is even more surprising than his claim that professional athletes are somehow victims of “racism.”
Unlike Oliva, Hoste does not deny the reality of group loyalty; he just doesn’t like the group loyalties Americans actually have. When Hoste compares Cleveland sports fans unfavorably to ethnic groups struggling for a homeland, he erroneously concludes that it is impossible for someone to care about his city’s sports teams and something as weighty as “the well-being of their people and its history.” In fact, love of one’s home city and region is the precursor to love of nation, and it is difficult to see how a healthy, rooted patriotism arises apart from an attachment to one’s native place. Caring about the fortunes of one’s hometown’s sports teams is often part of caring about one’s hometown; indeed, children often learn about caring for their hometowns by rooting for its sport teams.
In suggesting that some Americans pay too much attention to professional sports, Hoste is closer to the mark than Oliva and his belief that professional athletes are victims of “racism.” However, Hoste overstates the case. It is possible to take an interest in professional sports and also take an interest in politics; millions of Americans do. It is also odd that Hoste thinks the alternative to participation in fandom should be espousal of “anti-statist positions,” since the excesses of professional sports have nothing at all to do with “statism.” “The state” did not decree the existence of ESPN, the network that broadcast LeBron James’ decision, sports talk radio, and weekends filled with nearly round-the-clock sports coverage: all of these came into existence because of market forces.
Indeed, an argument can be made that the free market has been principally responsible for the degradation of professional sports over the last few decades. Free agency for players has led to enormous salaries for athletes, salaries that have fueled player arrogance. Before players could entertain the hope of earning enough money in a few years to live lavishly for the rest of their lives, they sought instead to parlay the good will earned in the communities in which they played to be able to operate businesses in those communities following their retirement from sports. Growing up, my family would drive past the dry-cleaning store operated by Mike Garcia whenever we visited my Dad’s parents. Mike Garcia, my Dad told me, was one of the outstanding pitchers for the Indians in the 1950's, a teammate of Hall of Fame pitchers Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Early Wynn. When I moved back to Cleveland after law school, my commute regularly took me past the furniture store operated by Browns Hall of Fame receiver Dante Lavelli, and my wife attended Berea High School with the children of Lou Groza, another Browns Hall of Famer, who made his living as an insurance agent after leaving the Browns. I can’t help but think that, as a culture, we’d be better if our athletes emulated the likes of Garcia, Lavelli, and Groza rather than the many athletes today who long to be nothing more than highly priced mercenaries. From the fan perspective, too, player free agency has largely destroyed one of the joys of being a fan, the ability to watch a player develop his talents with one team and spend his entire career with that team.
Then there is the problem of what might be termed owner free agency, with the owners of sports teams betraying fans by moving their franchises to other cities for more money, as Art Modell did with the Cleveland Browns, or using the threat of such a move to extract money from local governments, as countless owners have done. One city that never has to worry about the hometown team leaving is Green Bay, since the Packers are municipally owned. The problem of disloyal owners can also be curbed by opprobrium, but libertarian ideologues are as dismayed by such opprobrium as they are by municipal ownership, as Skip Oliva’s defense of LeBron James reminds us.
It is hard not to get discouraged by professional sports today. But I still count myself a Cleveland sports fan, for both the excitement and the camaraderie following a team can bring. In a country where the sense of community is disappearing, sports at its best can still bring communities together. On August 31, 2004, two close friends and I went to a sports bar to play trivia. The Indians were on TV, playing the Yankees, but they had no realistic shot of making the playoffs and few people in the bar were giving the game their undivided attention. But as the Indians kept scoring runs, more of us started watching the game intently. By the time the score was 17 to 0 or so, all of us were watching the game intently, cheering loudly as the score finally reached 22 to 0, a record loss for the Yankees. We were cheering because we were Clevelanders and we knew what a hated rival the Yankees had been, thanks to fathers who told us about players like Mike Garcia. It is a shame that LeBron James chose to have this generation of Cleveland fathers pass along a different sort of story to their sons, and a shame that ideologues with no understanding of loyalty chose to criticize those fathers for doing so.