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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While I appreciate Zirin's sentiment about ownership & teams that abuse the communities & fans that follow them. He is making LeBron James a hero in this scenario. If one is going to hold sports franchises responsible for their impact ouside just the wins & loses, then James is not a hero. I am from Akron the same as James but live in Cleveland, I never had the regional disconnect between Cleveland & Akron. I always looked at northeast Ohio as having common ground, all former vibrant industrial cities that were shells of their past glory. Like most of America, Cleveland is subject to the suburban communities where a vast majority of its inhabitants live with little reason to venture downtown unless work, sports or similar special event. When the city moved the Indians & Cavs downtown the goal was to generate life & commerce into what was a ghost town outside weekly business hours. It worked the area developed. Downtown has been revitalized with many local businesses, especially bars & restaurant. However, money is tight & jobs are few, here recessionary conditions have been in effect for decades. But when teams are winning the downtown is booming, the Cavs at their peak guaranteed 42 nights plus the playoffs of full parking lots, bars & restaurants many came to be a part of it even if they didn't have a ticket. However, the Decision changed this it not only crushed a fan base but an already fragile local economy. Dan Gilbert, since he bought the franchise & has invested in this community with jobs and other ventures. Jim Brown, while having his own issues, has been a critic of the modern athlete's apolitical stance & involvement in the communities in which they inhabit. Brown advised reinvestment by athletes into their community to benefit local business, often this was often directed toward cities & urban areas to the upward mobility of African American communities. Prominent atheletes like James are able to transcend what market they play in & have an impact on the communities with visabilty & ripple effect the games have on the city. By being as successful & talented as he was James boosted a local economy. But I am pretty sure that wasn't a factor in The Decision, but the results & effects outside the arena have been felt. So don't make James a hero, because he's not. He is a coward who took the easy way out when things got tough. He turned his back on a community that only supported him, that looked past his short comings & defended him to a fault. Fans here are loyal probably too much so, but don't root against him because of the fans. Root against him because of the waitresses, bartenders & others who have seen their lives & livelihoods suffer.

I think a parallel with this can be drawn to European soccer and the blatant power of owners with almost unlimited financial resources. Notice how teams like Real Madrid and Manchester City are despised by many purists for out-bidding other team for known quantities. In many ways, I think OKC is seen as the "good guys" because they developed their own talent, rather than Miami picking up two all-stars as a shortcut to greatness. It really is a combination of factors circling around the underdog narrative and the condemnation of the villain, but I think it points back to a puritanical distaste for shortcuts

Also, As much as Clay Bennett should be villainized, his exploits did provide a team for the most rabid fan base in the NBA. If more owners brought about an experience similar to OKC, I would much rather have that than see half-empty arenas in Charlotte or Atlanta or any of the other apathetic basketball cities.

I find it odd that Zirin left out the equally despicable ownership of the Heat. The American Airlines Arena the Heat play in is owned by Miami County. The Heat pay zero rent to use the arena and several politicians have publicly lambasted the deal that created this illogical arrangement. Basically, Heat majority owner Micky Arison used his dough to influence decision makers and push the deal through at the expense of the taxyers who funded the arena's construction.

How in the blue fuck am I supposed to choose one team over the other based on the ethics of their ownership? It's a ridiculous standard that leads to only one solution: not watching any sports or anything else. Ever.