I don’t know what a triple-double is, but apparently it was enough to seal the deal for LeBron James this week as he was named MVP in the NBA Finals.
After leading the Miami Heat to victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, King James’s crown regained much of the luster which had worn off since he entered the League nine years ago. The fact that I, an avowed non-sporty sports fan, know all this speaks to hyperbole and excitement that’s surrounded the Championship series for the past few weeks. But there’s a shadow side to all the hoopla. And from my perspective– where tarnished reputations are concerned– players are not even in the same league with their fans and the sports media.
For all the lip service the latter two groups give to the pro-athlete’s responsibility to be good role models to other people’s kids, the torrent of player-hating unleashed after James’s long-awaited victory makes me wonder why no one ever turns the camera on the real-life role models populating the stands and press boxes.
For the record, I think the sports-hero-as-role-model fiat is terribly misguided and sends a bad message to youngsters. Most pro-athletes are too young to have distinguished themselves as anything but a phenom in their chosen sport. The mono-focus that’s required to become great at anything can come at the expense of developing one’s intellectual and social skills, and yet observers across the board have eagerly equated the athlete’s talent on the field with the measure of his character off the field for decades. That adults continue to make such a rookie mistake only calls into question their judgement and belies a dual obsessions with wealth & celebrity status.
That said, let’s examine the heretofore unheralded role models and their sideline contributions to the well being of The Children.
While it can be argued that there’s no market for jerseys with names like “MOM”, “DAD”, “AUNTIE”, “UNC”, “NANA” or “POPPY” printed in block letters across their backs, the fact is that those of us who were not gifted with agility, extraordinary eye-hand coordination and a genius for calculating angles & inches at warp speed are the ones who have the most face time with the little people. And while the sprouts may not go glassy-eyed and beg us for an autograph each time we average Joe & Janes enter a room, the truth remains that the little buggers are watching us to see who we respect; what we value and how we conduct ourselves when no body’s watching. To paraphrase the ancient Buddhist philosophy: “Wherever we go, there they are.”
And what a sorry sight…
Setting aside the spectacle of grown-men & women tearing at the flesh of fallen heroes when super-novas like Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and Pete Rose fall to earth– I worry about the hypocrisy of our behaving like jackals while telling kids that the #1 Rule of good sportsmanship that you never kick a man when he is down.
As for that other chestnut from the annals of fair play: what are kids to think when basic tenets like “May the best man win” are trampled by sports columnists like Chris Smith of forbes.com? When I read articles like his “Three Reasons for LeBron Haters To Be Happy” I can’t help wondering when the Role Model Police will cry foul, because the shift from a fan’s hoping that the player they love will win, to praying that the player they hate will lose is as pervasive as it is troubling. Of course, the NBA holds its members to a higher standard, but imagine the fallout were a baller to tweet something as petty about a sports writer.
And what of the Fair Weather Friends whose love for a hometown hero can corrode into abject hatred in a matter of seconds? Quick! Somebody cover the kids’ eyes and ears because when James had the temerity to state “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach” it immediately became apparent that there’s a very thin line between fan loyalty and their feelings of ownership over the individual. “I can never forgive him for what he did to [Cleveland]” whines Cavalier fan Michael Periatt in an article from The Lantern, which begins “I’m a LeBron Hater. I despise him.” Nice.
To his credit, Periatt does acknowledge that he cannot “objectively discuss anything” related to James, and I gathered as much from his opening salvo. But what I have trouble understanding is why a fan’s wishes ought to preclude a player’s autonomy. Given America’s sordid past with slavery, the parallels between Periatt’s thinking and that of Ole Massa’s from the Land of Cotton are pretty hard to overstate. Moreover, in light our culture’s high esteem for man’s inalienable right to self-determination… not to mention a pursuit of fame & fortune… one might think James would have been lauded for making a good business decision at his tender age. Instead, the takeaway for kids was that fan loyalty is fleeting, James’s talents would be neither acknowledged nor applauded if he took them to Miami and that the rules of the game were on a sliding scale– according to what’s best for the fan as opposed to the person who has actually ground out years of hard work to make all their hoop dreams come true.
Talk about forfeiting an opportunity for a teachable moment! As well as missing the boat on giving praise where it is actually due. Am I the only one who believes that the professional athlete’s hard work ethic in the age of entitlement is precisely what makes him or her extraordinary? Given the mixed messages, can we blame the child who concludes that the old maxim of How You Play the Game is anything but a bunch of malarkey?
Lastly, while I’ve only attended games at Turner Field, Madison Square Garden and AmericanAirlines Arena a handful of times, the experience of watching fans berate players from the seats near the floor left me in shock and awe each time. Where do ticket-holders get off addressing anyone with such vitriol? Maybe alcohol is to blame, but between the insensitivity of spewing profanity when a player’s parents, wife and/or kids may be in earshot, and the stupidity required to do so while within arms-reach of testosterone-fueled, muscle-bound gladiators– some of whom, it’s worth noting, have anger-management issues of their own– is really puzzling to me. So when the sports press gleefully drags Ron Artest over the coals for brawling with drunken fans in the stands at the infamous Malice in the Palace it makes me want to call a time out and demand that somebody contextualize the story and tell kids the whole truth.
For all our claims to the contrary, I don’t believe any of the chatter about role models and what athletes owe us have anything to do with kids. But they are a perfect reflection of a terribly flawed value system that comes to light every time those we put on a pedestal (for all the wrong reasons) fall from their unearned perches… which were too high to begin with. Conversely, I can’t help thinking of the countless men and women of character we might be overlooking because they spend more time warming a bench than putting up big numbers and posterizing their opponents.
Not to mention the real super heroes who grind it out night after night– telling their little ones to eat their spinach… do their homework… and brush their teeth before going to bed.