You Used to Be Big

Would Cleveland be better off without professional sports? Pete Beatty and Scott Raab consider the issue.
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Original art by Cole Neilsen (colenielsen.com/@colenielsen)

Clevelanders, as an affinity group, didn’t deal with LeBron James leaving town very well. Few sports-related events this side of the Nika riots have ever displaced so much cubic bile. But the overreaction wasn’t a regional phenomenon. I am hard up to name a trivial event ever that’s been deoxygenated as thoroughly as the Decision. Not even angsty liberals picking at the scab of the GOP primaries compares to the LeBron hate-along.

For 18 months we have battened on LeBron character assassinations, LeBron apologias, LeBron Dolchstoßlegende theorizing—basically about 720 degrees worth of angles—about one dude’s employment lifestyle choice and subsequent job performance. LeBron’s last year and a half probably inspired more words than were written in entire early-modern centuries. Which is weird and probably bad news about the future prospects of humanity, but whatever. Life is too short to spend nursing animosities, even ultravalid ones (Hug Michigan).

Which, in turn, is why I was surprised by Scott Raab’s The Whore of Akron. The prospect of an entire book excoriating LeBron was about as appetizing as, well, LeBron winning a title. I anticipated the sports-prose equivalent of a hundred Jack Chick tracts stapled together. But Raab is a gifted, thoughtful (and gleefully profane) writer. His detestation of LeBron isn’t an act, though it’s not exactly a Rawlsian contemplation of justice, either. Whore is mostly amusing, quite often touching, and unexpectedly thoughtful for a book written by an adult about how sports can hurt your feelings.

The closing pages of Raab’s book are a passionate, harsh (even relative to the rest of the book) lecture to LeBron, set off by the ill-advised “wake up tomorrow” post-Finals monologue. Toward the end of his stemwinder, Raab informs LeBron—and the reader—that “great cities and great athletes live and die.” I think his point—besides his overall point of “Redact LeBron James with a mailbox”—is that only fans have the power to make heroes, and that LeBron can’t escape his problems by escaping Cleveland. (Welcome to the club.)

But I read another notion into Raab’s throwaway line. Sure enough, no one will give a shit about LeBron James in 100 years. The upside of eternity for LeBron, apart from the trust funds he leaves behind for his great-great-grandchildren, is, um, death. But the same thing is true for Cleveland. The sun will crash into the earth, or the planet will cook itself to rid its surface of humans, and the Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor metropolitan statistical area will shuffle off into Bolivian along with everything else. No shame in that, good effort by everyone.

It’s not *the* Rapture I spied between Raab’s words, but merely a tactical apocalypse. Maybe LeBron leaving was actually a step in the right direction. Maybe Cleveland—and plenty of other cities going through similar civic discomfort over getting older, smaller, and shittier—would be better off without big-league sports. Maybe we should go ahead and wake up tomorrow and have the same personal problems we had today, in LeBron’s words. Cleveland and Buffalo and Sacramento and wherever’s “personal” problems are bad enough without shitty pro sports teams drinking our various and sundry milkshakes.

But ”big-league” status for troubled regions is a source of tax revenue (after the team gets done shaking the county down for a stadium), some menial jobs and other goodies, and a rallying point for regional identity and pride (the real value). I could probably weave something together out of urban planning, economics, psychiatric medicine, and witchcraft that explains why Cleveland (or some other town) could do just fine with its vibrant high-school sports scene, and a handful of community-oriented minor-league teams. Of course, Cleveland’s three major-league teams aren’t about to go anywhere, nor should we expect them to surrender their licenses to vacuum up money because the city might be healthier without them.

Systematically fleecing lower-middle-class people of their money and time to watch the neo-Browns is most likely a sin, but despair is always an even worse offense. Losing sucks, but it’s not fatal. There are teams that can even afford indifference to winning: the Cubs and the Maple Leafs are cocooned in their own landmark status, safe in economically viable towns, supported by loyal fans. Then there’s the Packers. Green Bay (population 104,000) is something like a holy city of football, exempt from the realities of the market, owned by its caretakers. And as of recently, they win too, more or less constantly.

Fans of teams like the Browns or Bills don’t have the bourgeois pleasures of Chicago or Toronto or even Pittsburgh to console themselves with, let alone the pipe dream of winning. These sad-sack franchises wallow in some kind of Rust Bowl phlogiston, a slurry of bad breaks, bad decisions, bad face, and just bad vibes, a constant smolder that seems to suck the life out of not just diehard fans but the entire public culture. There is such a thing as a sports misery cult (Hi Dan Shaughnessy), ranging from talk-radio gripers to sad invocations of a curse to the more creative, like Scott Raab’s book, for one handy example.

Raab’s big point, apart from the constant, indulgent (but gratifying) up-yours-buddy to LeBron, is that what we all get out of life, what we get out of sports as a subset of life, is a faith that is its own reward, “that we’ll somehow last long enough to witness that parade down Euclid Avenue, and that this—finally, always—could be the year.” It’s not a bad lesson, really, but what if we just went ahead and had the parade without the Browns?

YAKKIN' ABOUT WHORES, DOOM, AND PMA, WITH SCOTT RAAB

CLASSICAL: Why "whore," apart from the riff on "Whore of Babylon," which captures the Revelations-esque wrath Clevelanders felt on Decision Day? If LeBron's perfidy makes him a whore and not just a self-interested dumbass, aren't we all whores? Or is it just a really good title for a book?

RAAB: When the editors asked me for book title suggestions, what I suggested was “Bearing Witness” or “Witness.” I didn't think that HarperCollins would be willing to consider “The Whore of Akron,” which I had been using as a Twitter hashtag for a while. For one thing, Wal-Mart and Costco peddle a lot of books, and TWoA wasn't the kind of title you were going to see as you walked their aisles with your kids in tow. My senior editor, David Hirshey, and his protege, Barry Harbaugh, took it upon themselves to sell the book's title in-house.

My agent, among others, wanted another title. But I was, and I am, very happy with it. Beyond Babylon, there's also a truly great Woody Allen short story, “The Whore of Mensa,” that I love. (It's among the gems in his book Without Feathers.) And on a metaphorical yet real-life level, much of what Cavs fans heard from LeBron over the course of his time in Cleveland was along the lines of, “Oh, baby, baby—you're the best. I'm loving this so much, baby. You make me feel so good, baby. So damn good..." and so on. Then we awoke in an empty bed, with an empty wallet on the dresser and a limp dick.

I've argued elsewhere, in an entirely different context, that everyone in the mainstream media is a whore, without ever excluding myself. Doesn't mean that we're devoid of integrity, mind you, or that we can't commit honest journalism, but trusting any of us beyond a certain point, on or off the page or screen, is a dumb thing to do. In this particular case—calling LeBron a whore while trying to sell a book about him—I would have to be an even more complete idiot not to own up to the crass and duplicitous nature of my effort. But taking the book's title seriously is dumb, too. I mean, we're talking about the screed of a bitter fan of Cleveland sports here, not WMD in Iraq or climate change.

CLASSICAL: You say in the (excellent) closing page of the book "Great cities and great athletes live and die"; sure enough no one will give a shit about LeBron in 100 years. But Cleveland is dying, too. So much of your love for Cleveland is about your memories from NE Ohio, how the place shaped you. But will there even be a Cleveland to grow up in for people of your son's generation, or of his son's generation? Talk a little about how fucked Cleveland, economically, beyond sports. Basically, is Cleveland doomed?

RAAB:: You could spend a lifetime studying the fall of Rome, but Rome's still there. Cleveland proper is no boom town—the city's population is the smallest it's been in a century—yet the metro area is relatively healthy. The city's days as a vital cog in America's great industrial wheel are gone, long gone, and I can't envision their return—the Rockefellers and Carnegies ain't coming back—but Cleveland never was Chicago, much less New York. I'm not sure this means it's doomed. I'm doomed. I think The Whore of Akron is fraught with a sense of one guy grasping his mortality, and projecting it upon his idealized home town. Barring fulfillment of the Mayan calendar or Al Gore's nightmare, Cleveland, like The Dude, will abide—scruffy, befuddled, piss-stained, but possessed of an irresistible integrity of character and a unique deliciousness.

It's funny: I live very close to Newark, New Jersey, another city whose demise is somewhat exaggerated by people my age who grew up there. Like Cleveland, the economic and political forces that “destroyed” Newark didn't wipe the city off the planet's face. There are great neighborhoods, parks, and civic institutions, a powerful, positive legacy, and a feeling of pride in both Newark and Cleveland. Wonderful towns, both of them, full of wonderful folks. May it always be so.

CLASSICAL: Do you think Cleveland would be better off without sports, as a city, as a collective psyche, if that makes sense?

RAAB: Last time I checked, Cleveland was by far the smallest market with teams in the NFL, NBA, and MLB. Those teams are HUGELY important to Cleveland's sense of itself as a place that still matters beyond the Lake Erie shores. It would be worse off in every way without any one of those teams. In my pre-Decision nuclear winter scenario—may it never come to pass—LeBron's departure, along with the obliteration of the Indians' fanbase and the clown car that is the Cleveland Browns, leads to the loss of one or two of those teams. That would hurt, deeply. It would, above all, reinforce the town's terrible self-image and pessimism.

You can see a bigger version of Cole Nielsen's awesome original illustration here.


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