Being in Charlotte again, I am reminded that no athlete in the history of American sports better understood the delicate concept of sports hate than a now 66-year-old Charlotte resident who was born Richard Morgan Fliehr and became known to the world — or at least a fair part of the world — as Ric Flair.
Ric Flair was a professional wrestler, of course, one of many who would be known as “The Nature Boy.” He won World Championship belts about 583,284 times — I know he holds various records. But Ric Flair’s enduring legacy, in my mind, is as one of the great bad guys — heels, as they are called — in the history of wrestling. Flair strutted. He bragged. He taunted. He insulted. He shouted “WOOOOO!” with authority. He cheated with style, bled with gusto, used metal chairs as weapons like few ever have. He locked on the figure four. He said cartoonishly insulting things like: “When it comes to the Nature Boy, ladies, you cannot not be the first, but you can be the next.” He soaked in the boos like they were friends he had not seen in years. “To be the man,” he announced early and often, “you have to BEAT the man.” In this scenario, in all scenarios, it was understood that Ric Flair was the man. And the more they hated him, the more he became the man.
True: Pro wrestling is not real.
Opinion: Other sports are not all that real either.
I think now about the fury of emotion that surrounds LeBron James these days. Buzz Bissinger calls him the most hated athlete in America. I’m not sure how you would measure such things, but it’s clear that the vilification of LeBron is one of the hot topics going these days. In a way, I am of two minds when it comes the Clemenating* of LeBron James.
*Clemenate (KLEM-a-nayt), verb, to hate an athlete in an entirely healthy, fun sports way (rather than hating them in a crazed, stalking, loaded gun, insane sort of way).
On the one hand, I’m irritated with some of the over-the-top loathing of James. For instance, I’m disgusted with Ohio Governor John Kasich for putting out a painfully stupid, self-serving and low-rent resolution where he ripped on LeBron and declared the Dallas Mavericks “Ohio residents” for knocking the Miami Heat out in the NBA Final. I could spend a long time ripping Kasich for this bit of amateur hour, but Peter over at Cleveland Frowns already carved him up.
On the other hand, I’m irritated by all the moral tsk-tsking going on these days suggesting it is somehow WRONG to Clemenate James or that it somehow diminishes us. This theme has been expressed by many, but was probably best summed up by my great good friend Michael Rosenberg, who wondered what kind of country we live in where people have such rage for LeBron James (who, after all, only exercised his free agent rights to play where he wanted to play) while celebrating Jason Kidd (who, after all, hit his wife). That bit of logic, it seems to me, sounds a whole lot better at first blush than it does when you spend time thinking about it.
I actually think both of my emotions — being exasperated by those who hate LeBron James AND being exasperated by those who lecture us all about hating LeBron James — come from the same place. It has something to do with the secret Ric Flair understood: This stuff isn’t REAL. Oh, the sports themselves are real, or at least we hope so. The results are real, or at least we hope so. But everything else, no, I don’t think so. Sports are in so many ways a make-believe world just like all the other make-believe-worlds in our lives.
What I mean is: Professional athletes are characters. I”m not sure why this concept gets lost, but it does all the time. Professional athletes get paid money to perform. We pay money to watch. That’s it. We don’t know these athletes. We know some things about them. We try, with varying success, to know more things about them. Beyond that we fill the gaps with our own imaginations. We infuse them with character traits and various qualities they may or may not possess. Every few days, a famous athlete will do something or say something that will remind us once again how little we really know them, and how we CANNOT know them, for better and worse. Being an admirable athlete does not necessarily make someone an admirable person. Being a despicable athlete does not necessarily make someone a despicable person. Forgetting this is one of the big traps. The biggest athletes are not our friends. They are not our neighbors. They are stars.
But that’s OK … because they are CHARACTERS. We know them through that prism. That’s part of what makes sports fun. We know them as conquerers or as failures, as daring or conservative, as valiant or choker, hero or goat, friend or foe, it’s all part of the game. That’s the sports world we understand. Would it be more fun to have A-Rod as the fifth member of your poker party than Derek Jeter? Would you prefer to live next door to Tom Brady or Kevin Durant? Who would make for a better barbecue guest, Phil Mickelson or Venus Williams? Who knows? Who cares? None of these questions matter one bit, except as chatter. They are all real people, of course, just like Robert DeNIro is a real person, just like Natalie Portman* is a real person, just like Bruce Springsteen is a real person. But they are not real people in MY LIFE. They are characters who help fill my life with all sorts of rich emotions. Anytime, as fans, we start to think of them as much more than that, I think we get ourselves in real trouble.
*My wife and I have long had a “One absurdly famous person we are allowed to run off with,” card in our marriage. Hers keeps changing — Paul Rudd, Daniel Craig, the guy who played Horatio Hornblower, etc. — which tells me that she is spending WAY too much time thinking about this. Mine has been Natalie Portman for quite a long time, which once led this classic exchange:
Margo: So you’re sticking with Natalie Portman?
Margo: You know she’s way too young for you.
I love that. Way too young for me. Natalie Portman is one of the most beautiful women in the world. She’s one of the most famous actresses in the world. She is engaged (or married, not sure) to one of the world’s great ballet dancers. The chances that I will ever even be in the same county as Natalie Portman, much less in the same building, much less in the same room, much less in the same conversation, is so infinitesimally small that it can only be measured with purple unicorn stardust. All THAT we can overlook. But the age difference …
I was thinking today about about a scene from Casablanca — it’s the scene near the beginning where a group at a table in “Rick’s Cafe Americain,” asks Carl the waiter if Rick/Humphrey Bogart will have a drink with them.
Carl: Madame he never drinks with customers. Never. I have never seen him.
Woman: What makes a saloon-keeper so snobbish.
Man: Perhaps if you told him I ran the second largest banking house in Amsterdam.
Stop there. What do you think of the man from Amsterdam? He’s a jerk, right? Instant reaction, right? I mean, he offers exact one line, and the reaction is still abundantly clear: He’s an arrogant jerk. Second-largest bank in Amsterdam … who cares? Who does this guy think he is? Carl immediately puts him in his place*, and it’s clear we are supposed to laugh at this silly man who thought his little second-largest banker-in-Amsterdam ploy actually had a chance of getting him to see Rick.
*Carl: “That wouldn’t impress Rick. The leading banker in Amsterdam is now the pastry chef in our kitchen.” BOOM, you’re roasted!.
But what do we actually know about this banker? Nothing. Maybe he gives all his money to charity. Maybe he left banking to run an orphanage. Maybe he’s quietly working as an Allied agent and is helping to set up D-Day. We don’t know because … IT DOES NOT MATTER. The guy’s a character in a movie (and a minor character). Asking what he is REALLY like might make for a fun short story, but for the purposes of the movie itself it is beyond pointless. We are supposed to feel about him exactly as we feel about him.
LeBron James does not just play a game. He plays a character. That may sound crass, but don’t we all just intuitively understand that’s the deal. LeBron James does not get paid millions of dollars because he’s really, really, really good at something. There are countless people in the world who are really, really, really good at things that are at least as useful as basketball, most of them much more useful, but they don’t get paid anything close. He gets paid millions of dollars because his skills infuse our lives. We pay to watch. We are swayed by his choice of sneaker and car insurance. We are fascinated by him — with “fascinated” covering a complete array. We like him. We despise him. We root for him. We root against him. His talent moves us.
But in the end, it seems to me, none of this is about HIM. We like and despise, root for and against the CHARACTER we know as LeBron James. The person, LeBron James, we don’t know anything more than a ghostly image and never will.
That’s why the Governor’s crass resolution drives me nuts … because he is making the hate too real. LeBron James is not a real-life villain. He did not break any laws. He did not even break any moral codes, as far as I know. He is a supremely gifted basketball player who has inspired so many wonderful emotions for basketball fans in the state of Ohio. For a politician to try and win cheap support by playing to our pettiness is not untypical — but it’s a pretty crummy thing to do.
But, for exactly the same reason, that’s why anyone blasting fans for despising LeBron drive me nuts too. Because they too are making the hate too real. People don’t hate LeBron. They (we) hate the character he plays. They (we) hate the arrogance he shows, the obliviousness he displays, the crass way he abandoned Cleveland after first quitting on the team, the less than laudable way he has tried to build a pat hand with two other superstars, the victory celebration the Superfriends threw before the season even began and so on.
The vast, vast, vast, vast majority of sports fans don’t root for athletes based on their moral fiber. For one, we don’t know their moral fiber and guessing can leave us open mouthed at tabloid headlines. But even more to the point: We wouldn’t root for them based on that stuff anyway. If sports rooting was about the quality of the people involved, their charitable contributions, their loyalty to friends, their family commitment, their legal backgrounds, ugh, it would be less fun than conducting job interviews. In fact, it would be EXACTLY like conducting job interviews.
We root for athletes because they happen to play in the city where we live, or teams that we like or at the college we attended. We root for athletes because we like the way they play, because we admire their style, because we appreciate their effort, because we are roused by their games. And, basically, THAT IS IT. These are not political statements we’re making. These are not moral statements we’re making. If I’m a Yankees fan, I root for Derek Jeter. If I’m a Red Sox fan, I root against Derek Jeter. This isn’t that complicated.
Dallas fans who rooted for Jason Kidd and basketball fans who rooted for him to finally win his championship after a long and great career, they were not speaking out in support of his domestic abuse arrest, and I think it’s disingenuous and insulting to suggest it. Jason Kidd is a character in our lives, not the best man at our weddings. People enjoy the Sistine Chapel without supporting Michelangelo’s reportedly disgusting personal habits. People have a great time at Woody Allen movies without standing up for his kind of creepy life. So people should be able to root for Jason Kidd because he’s been a fabulous player for so long without saying anything at all about who he is when he’s off the court.
And in that same vein: I don’t HATE LeBron James, the person, of course not. He has brought me great joy as a sports fan. I wish him all the happiness he can find in life. But I Clemenate LeBron James the player for all the reasons listed above and for various wordless reasons that come from the gut. I root for his team to lose. I root for him to miss the big shot. I root for these things with zest and gusto because it’s fun and sports are supposed to be fun.
And in this, LeBron James is in some good company. I rooted against Larry Bird too. I rooted against John Elway. I rooted against Terry Bradshaw, I rooted against the Oakland Raiders, I rooted against Martina Navratilova and Greg Norman and George Foreman and the Edmonton Oilers and, of course, I rooted against Ric Flair. Why? There should be no need to explain why. It’s sports. It’s entertainment. And to be the man you have to beat the man. Maybe LeBron James will win his championship next year and he will have a last laugh. Maybe he will lose in spectacular fashion again, and I’ll have another happy day. Either way — nothing personal — I’ll be joyfully rooting for him lose. And on that you can throw on a wholehearted: WOOOOO!