A few weeks back Ray Lewis sat down with Sal Paulantonio to talk lockout, and somehow, even through the dense fog of crazy that usually materializes whenever Ray Lewis opens his mouth, I caught a few glimmers of clarity.
Lewis talked about who really stood to suffer from this lockout, and he insisted (with even more intensity than he’s ever plugged a stick of Old Spice) that it was the fans, not the players, who’d be losing here. Which, sure: yes, he has to say that, and yes, that’s not exactly a novel thought. But! It was a nice thing for him to say regardless, and nicer still the way he chose to say it, hinting as he did at exactly the kind of self-awareness sports fans would like to believe our heroes are capable of: he talked about the economic struggles gripping the country and about the reliance we have on athletes to offer some kind of vicarious escape from our troubles, however so brief and however so trivial that escape may be in the grand scheme of things.
He then went on to prophesy that if the lockout continued our cities would soon crumble under an inevitable crime wave, because without football people have nothing to distract themselves from running around and stealing shit—but like I said: glimmers.
Anyway, I was reminded of this, from Will Leitch:
Loving sports, by definition, requires a certain suspension of disbelief and logic. We are all pouring our hearts and souls into cheering for men (and women) who do not care about us, who are not like us, who are not the type of people we would ever associate with (or even meet) in real life. We deify them because it is hard to find people to deify in the real world: Sports spans every age group, ethnic group, political persuasion, and all else that serves to divide us, separate us. We cheer for athletes because sports does not matter, not really. We cheer because sports is, ultimately, harmless.
And we trust that they will at least pretend. We trust that they will recognize the ultimate ludicrousness of this whole enterprise, that these are grown men wearing tank tops, throwing a ball up and around, running on wood, that this all exists because we allow it to exist, that the illusion must be maintained. We trust that they understand how good they have it, how much we give them, against our own self-interest. We trust that they are not laughing at us.
Will wasn’t talking about the NFL lockout, of course—this was written almost a year ago. And what made it such a memorable passage for me wasn’t just how eloquently it summed up all the things that are so wonderful and yet so complicated about following sports, but also the time of its writing: filed at a little past 11pm, barely an hour after cameras had cut out in Greenwich, CT, and here was Leitch, somehow—I don’t know, superhumanly—writing those words while I was probably feverishly mixing my third drink and still reeling from the calamitous shit show I’d just witnessed on EPSN called “The Decision.”
The Decision, you’ll recall, was quickly followed by The Judgment, because while LeBron may have decided that night to take his talents to South Beach the rest of us decided right then and there to hate him, and to hate him in ways we’d never hated an athlete before. Christ, I was so screwed up by The Decision I ended up writing this horrible/awful/emotional/meandering disaster of a blog post; Katie Baker wrote a fucking opus (a brilliant one!) on anger, betrayal, and (wait for it)… Britney Spears.
All in all it was a pretty shitty week to be a sports fan! We all kind of lost our minds for a minute there, because we expect more and we expect better from all these figures we deify. And while athletes don’t often make for the best moral compasses they’re still undeniably compasses of some sort. Greatness, perhaps. Or, I don’t know, excellence, or maybe some word in Ancient Greek.
And LeBron had fallen colossally short of our expectations.
Now that the book is closed on the 2011 season it’s kind of nice to look back at the lifespan of The Judgment, because in a day and age when a common response to a congressman sexting dick pics to underage girls is the observation that some day every politician will have a sex tape, the dedicated and unrelenting loathing of LeBron James provides a refreshingly constant and unswaying counterpoint. That initial anger never subsided over the year; if anything it only intensified. Cynicism may be slowly eroding almost every other aspect of modern life, but at least here, in this one instance, a nation of people who can otherwise be grouped and defined and opposed and polarized by any number of other characteristics decided to draw a line in the sand together, as sports fans, not just to say This Is Wrong but to keep right on saying it until we’d all exacted our collective, cathartic revenge: watching him choke (as we all knew he would) in the postseason.
And it was such a unique hatred, at least in terms of the long and sordid history of hyperbolic opinions among sports fans. It wasn’t like the Cowboys, who we all hate pretty much just because they won so much (also they were kind of dicks about it). And it wasn’t like the Yankees, who everyone hates because of their money (hell, we all just threw ourselves behind a team with twice the payroll of the Miami Heat) (oh also: Mark Cuban). No, this was an entirely new kind of hate, because with the callousness and absurdity and sheer stupidity of The Decision LeBron had wronged everyone who ever gave a shit about sports.
Even those who stood to benefit the most from his decision (at least judging from the few Miami natives I know) never—in private, at least—celebrated LeBron so much as just sort of awkwardly welcomed him. No one I spoke with ever seemed to be won over by some particularly defining performance the way, say, Yankee fans were when Jason Giambi parked a walk-off grand slam late in extra-innings against the Minnesota Twins and a stadium full of rain-soaked fans finally embraced their highly paid one-time nemesis.
But now that he’s choked, now that we’ve all indulged ourselves on so much delightful, glorious, wonderful, never-has-it-ever-felt-better schadenfreude, even the most die-hard Heat fan I know has started pondering the mechanics of a trade. “Maybe we can just trade him for a whole team,” he said. “We give you LeBron, you give us… the Spurs.”
So in this sense, at least, The Judgment was universal.
But then, right when we might have started having misgivings about the intensity with which we’d hated this man over the course of the last year, he delivered again, and did so with the most preposterous and symbolic juxtaposition imaginable to that very nice thing Ray Lewis said on ESPN a few weeks ago:
All the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today.
And with that he made it OK for all of us to say: Fuck you, LeBron.