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LeBronification: Meta-Narratives and Cultural Angst in Sports Fandom

The Miami Heat’s defeat by the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals has been greeted with gleeful schadenfreude by basketball fans serious and less-serious the world over. The most common prevailing wisdom on the fascinating basketball experiment conceived by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh sometime last summer is that it has failed, and that it deserved to.

I lost, and now am threatening the masculine self-image of my fans.

Even if, like me, you tend to doubt prevailing wisdom as a matter of course, there are reasons to reject that viewpoint. Barring catastrophic injuries or precipitous declines, the superstar trio has five more years to learn how to dominate opponents, something they were getting better at as the season wore on anyway. Assuming that they’ll win a championship or two in that period would be the low estimate, I’d say. Dynasties in the classic sporting sense are easier to achieve in the NBA than in other major leagues due to the relatively small size of the roster and the star-centric focus of the game, but unless you’re talking about the Lakers, even the NBA is seeming distinctly post-dynastic lately. It seems like most elite teams will get their time in the sun, and a team with such astounding talent at its centre as the Heat can boast surely will ascend the pedestal in due time.

But the astoundingly popular Hate the Heat movement is hardly based in such rational analysis. It is so powerfully primal in its inherent rancour as to even overcome the sports world’s defining tribal cleavages. Perhaps Cleveland sports fans (or maybe even Toronto sports fans, to whatever limited extent they care about the Raptors) have a special claim to the feelings of betrayal that feed this righteous rage. And, to an extent, the mass rooting against the Heat follows established patterns of fandom in its occasional negative emphasis on the perceived “buying” of championships (this is Mr. Matthew Rea’s wording, I feel I must acknowledge). Like the aforementioned Lakers or the New York Yankees or Manchester United, the Heat snatched a lion’s share of the best talent available and saw it as a shortcut to glory. Add in an underdog-worshipping sports culture’s deep-seated distrust of favourites that even model franchises like the Detroit Red Wings and the New England Patriots can’t shake, and you’ve already got a potent potion of malcontent.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The delight taken in the Heat’s fairly narrow championship failure is not really about any of that. It’s not even about Wade (who already carried a team to a championship and, in the generic fan’s view, is thus absolved of any blame) or Bosh (because, really, when is it ever about him?). It’s all about LeBron. It’s about the Decision, the playoff failures, the hype that’s followed him since he was a teenager and that he’s approached like it’s his birthright. It’s about how he’s never quite responded to what’s been expected of him as he’s been expected to. The extent to which James’ PR miscalculations have conditioned how he’s viewed as a player (where he is still extremely impressive, especially statistically speaking) is now undeniable. He’s lost the fanbase so thoroughly that even if the Heat had won the title (which was an entirely possible result, despite what you’re now hearing), it would have been widely considered, on some level, illegitimate.

Insert "taking my talents to..." joke here

This view of sports is not one I can particularly stomach. The perspective, one that constructs the results of a competition, of grown men playing a game, as somehow illustrative of the superiority of a certain set of values or certain conceptions of masculinity, is not one I can share. Sport is many things, but it is not an exercise in moral edification. No ideological belief-structure or set of community virtues is exalted over another when one team beats another. LeBron’s choice, be it greedy, lazy, or an expression of free labor, did not pre-condition the result of the Heat’s up-and-down season. Nor, ultimately, was the NBA Finals’ result about unmeasurable, vague intangibles like “heart” or “effort”. This concept, that the team that wins worked harder for it or “wanted it more”, is simple transference, the projected desire of the marginalized working class to be rewarded for their own toil by a socioeconomic structure whose decks are stacked against them. It’s much more desirable to root for elbow-grease effort over pure, innate talent in the stadiums and arenas, especially because society rewards the latter over the former to a very great extent.

The last element, I think, underscores not only the distaste for the Heat but the tone of distrust that much of the hockey world outside of Vancouver adopts towards the Canucks. The privileging of skill over toughness by the league-best, Stanley Cup-vying Canucks inherently rubs the aggressively masculine brains of most hockey fans the wrong way. I’ve talked about this before, but the narrative of “softness” that tends to greet the offensive-talent-first teams in hockey and other sports besides (most of all soccer, which applies this rhetoric to centuries-old cross-border emnities) is, in many ways, the angry expression of a male subculture that harbours concerns about the short- and long-term endurance of its prized masculinity. The less careful individuals let this anxiety slip into outright homophobia, like the “Pronger is Gay” blackboard graffiti in Chicago’s dressing room at the end of last year’s Cup finals or Kobe Bryant’s and Joakim Noah’s derisive implications of homosexuality directed at referees. But it’s always present beneath the surface and always lurkingly relevant, as are the racial concerns that LeBron James was widely pilloried for honestly admitting that he recognized in the outsized counter-reaction to his free agency.

Sports fandom, with its ancient roots in gladiatorial bloodlust and military glorification, seems an obvious and (frankly) mostly harmless outlet for the seething resentments and cultural angst that modern democratic capitalism cannot simply consume away. That these roiling undercurrents are directed into further consumption should not be surprising; that is the way of all capital. But the constant, laboured construction of sporting meta-narratives is a more complex and less primal-urge-based development. Why is it that we, as fans, can revel in the barely-controlled and chaotic unpredictability of sports, its inherent lack of narrative, and yet also seek constantly to impose hermeneutic order upon it? We understand by telling stories, yes, but do we also not escape understanding by playing, and watching, games? I believe as much, and sports fans seem forever torn between the two.

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