Dissenting With The Dissenter: A reply to Dave Zirin on the NBA Finals

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Dave Zirin is one of our truly great and legitimately relevant sports journalists. His articles for The Nation about the politics and ethics behind the games first introduced me (among many other readers) to a wider view of sports, and engaged me as a politically conscious—and therefore often and inevitably conflicted—sports fan, and gave nuance and complexity to what most other sports journalism otherwise largely represents as a pretty homogenous and boneheaded cultural arena. He remains the most reliably progressive voice in sports commentary, raising questions plenty of people would rather not ask, let alone answer.

A perennial theme to these questions is the frequent and unpleasant contradiction between the game [choose your sport] and its ugly industry, and this is the banner under which Zirin has sounded the call against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Those Thunder's appearance in the upcoming NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, has, as Zirin blogged today, has been cast as a competition between good (Thunder) and evil (Heat). This is, according to Zirin, ass-backwards:

With such seemingly opposite teams and stars, the media are already writing the 2012 finals script of “good vs. evil.” It’s an easy, by-the-numbers narrative. It’s also bizarro world bullshit. This is one case where good is evil and the evil in question resides in shadows where fans choose not to look.

I would argue that how we choose to see the Heat and Thunder is a litmus test. It’s a litmus test that reveals how the sports radio obsession with villainizing twenty-first-century athletes blinds us to the swelling number of villains who inhabit the owner’s box. And in Oklahoma City, we have the kinds of sports owners whose villainy should never be forgotten.

… [Thunder owners] Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon don’t deserve anyone’s cheers. I don’t just want the Thunder to lose. I want LeBron James to make them wish they’d never left the Emerald City.

But simply flipping the script can’t be the answer, or at least seems like a bit of easy contrarianism unworthy of Zirin. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh aren’t playing Clay Bennett, Aubrey McClendon and David Stern. They’re playing Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Rooting for the players of one team to win an ideological battle, however righteous, against the owners of another doesn’t add up.

The difficulty is that while sports appear in the cultural arena as a part of civil society, and while we apparently participate in them—as fans, as observers, as journalists and tweeters—our participation isn’t democratic. “Rooting for” is not “voting for,” since owners follow the money, not fans’ input. See: the gilded Maloof hooves stampeding away from Sacramento; or the one that motivates Zirin’s (and other thoughtful people’s) anti-Thunder stance, the Seattle Sonics’ move to Oklahoma City.

In fact, given that all candidates in actual American elections follow the money, and that one such has called himself the future “CEO of America,” it would probably be better to say “rooting for” Mitt Romney/Obama/their Super PACs than “voting for” them. “Rooting for” anything implies a wishful attitude, a well-wishing for people or things with which you identify but upon whose fate you have no actual impact. This is why it is a term so well suited for sports: when the game is in play, fans submit to contingency, not principle.

But, of course, sports are an industry off the field or diamond or court or pitch. If fans want empowerment, there ought to be ways to affect that with regard to how the business of sports is conducted. Plenty of writers, Zirin foremost among them, have advocated this. But it seems like a category mistake to say that, in an actual game or series, you should root for or against players, as individuals or as a team, because you do or don’t like the way their owners handled their business. Zirin makes this point himself about the Miami Heat, after all: LeBron’s transfer was mismanagement; don’t hate the players, hate the corporate game. Fair enough, but why, then, doesn’t the same logic apply to OKC? We can’t root against LeBron for bygone industry blunders, but rooting against the Thunder is an ethical obligation for anyone who rejects unaccountable ownership and craven management decisions.

Rooting against a team because you despise the dirty dealings of the franchise implies the false belief that a series or game loss would somehow directly impact the ethics and politics of the way its owners do business. That’s not how change happens, at least not in sports, at least not today. Rooting against the Thunder or Miami in the NBA Finals might be, in principle, a righteous stand against the business. In reality, though, it isn’t an effective vote against their owners.

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