Read the opposing arguments from Babe Ruthless and Loyal Homer.
I would love to wax poetic on the virtues of non-violence. There truly is far too much aggression, anger, and hatred in this world, and the Earth would be a MUCH better place if everyone got along.
It is extremely ironic, then, that an event which is centered on competition, and celebrates winners over losers, can actually unify in the act of dividing. Don’t believe me? Then I would strongly recommend you tune into the events that will take place beginning in June in South Africa.
The World Cup is a perfect example of how people with the utmost hatred and disgust for each other can still come together and celebrate even the smallest commonalities between them – a game of soccer. Likewise, the Olympics present another rare opportunity for people to come together in a competition of NATIONAL pride that will not wind up with excessive blood spilling or death.
Sport, at its very core, is peaceful.
That does not mean, however, that sport is (or should be) entirely without aggression and even MILD violence. Many of the best rivalries in sports today have evolved from deeper lying disputes that have absolutely nothing to do with sports in general.
The Origin of a Great Rivalry
The greatest rivalry in American sports – The Ohio State vs Michigan football game – actually stems from a land dispute in 1835 called the Toledo War. That’s right, every year when the Buckeyes take the field against the Wolverines, it is quite literally a battle fought as an extension of a nearly 200 year old WAR. And although the reasons for that war have been lost over the centuries, the mutual dislike between Ohioans and Michiganders has continued to fester. Folks in Ohio HATE folks in Michigan, and vice versa.
Consequently, when Ohio State supporters watch their Scarlet and Gray clad warriors set foot on the gridiron, they do so with the utmost dislike for the Maize and Blue soldiers of Michigan and their flag-waving counterparts in the stands (with that hate being reciprocated by the Michigan faithful). Consequently, they EXPECT their on-field representatives to share in that hatred, as well as the hope for the athletic destruction of the vile opposition.
The Curse of Free Agency
In recent years, however, that sense of passionate rivalry has been lost in the NBA (and professional sports in general). While fans of the game still feel deep-rooted love for their teams (and vicarious hatred for all others), a disconnect has developed between the fans and the athletes who represent them.
Free agency has KILLED rivalry.
Fans today feel no relationship at all with the players who don their beloved uniforms because they know that the players have no real attachment to the city in which they represent. A kinship that once existed between players and fans has been lost, because we as fans know that the player filling the uniform is fleeting. By this time next week, my beloved power forward may very well be plotting where he will be playing next season, perhaps for the team that I despise.
Likewise, players have become so ingrained in a culture of contract performance that they no longer care which colors they are wearing as long as they are being made rich in the process. Taking that a step further, athletes have become business-savvy enough to recognize that too much animosity towards a certain market may actually HURT their chances at making a bigger paycheck in the future. Rather than alienate fans of a prospective future fan base (burning bridges BEFORE crossing them), they have completely disconnected from the fans.
Athletes like LeBron James and Derrick Rose are so exciting in the NBA because they’re hometown heroes. Not only are they some of the game’s brightest stars, but they are authentic representatives of the teams and cities they represent (at least for now). LeBron James, for example, isn’t just a kid who was DRAFTED by Cleveland Cavaliers, he IS Cleveland. He becomes a focal point of support and love that fans can rally around, and equally becomes a focal point of animosity and hatred for those who resent what he represents.
Speaking on behalf of all the Cleveland fans out there (of which I PROUDLY claim membership), we NEED LeBron to act and feel as we do. It is as simple as that. (Why do you think we took such offense when he showed up to an Indians playoff game in a Yankees hat?)
We as a city and as a people have been abused, belittled, and berated by the rest of the sports world for long enough. From insulting nicknames (“The Mistake by the Lake”) and berating implications (“You don’t live in Cleveland!”), to heartbreak and failure on the field, the city of Cleveland has long suffered.
Finally, though, we have a player who truly UNDERSTANDS. He grew up with us, lived in our struggling economic environment, shops in our stores, and can truly REPRESENT us. There is a bond between LeBron and the fans of the Cavs that MOST in sports will never understand. I’ve played basketball on the same St. Vincent St. Mary’s court as LeBron. I’ve sat in the same stands as LeBron while enjoying a University of Akron basketball game. Having attended a rival high school of LeBron’s, the best man in my brother’s wedding has a poster of himself getting dunked on by LeBron.
He is not just a hired gun who was called upon to bring a little justice to our neck of the woods, he is the local boy making a stand. He is one of us.
So when he steps onto the court, I don’t WANT to see him shaking hands and playing nice with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. I don’t want to see him hugging and laughing it up with Rajon Rondo. I want him to lead the rest of the Cavs in an all-out rampage to dismantle and EMBARRASS the Boston Celtics, whose players and fans have NO IDEA about what it is like to lose the way that we have in Cleveland (an 85 year championship drought in baseball means absolutely NOTHING when your basketball team has won 16 NBA Championships in the meantime).
When the Cavs lost to the Magic last year, I didn’t want to see LeBron shaking hands. Instead, his act of storming off of the court was the perfect representation of how we ALL felt in Cleveland.
We don’t WANT LeBron to hate the Celtics as much as we do. We NEED him to. Since I won’t have the opportunity to get in Garnett’s face and tell him what I REALLY think about him, I have to trust that my faithful and duly appointed representative, Mr. LeBron James, will satisfactorily handle that responsibility in my stead.
Loyal Homer is absolutely correct that we don’t need anymore gun-toting, riot-inducing incidents in sports. However, Babe Ruthless is also correct in asserting that the NBA cannot afford to shed all of its edginess without risking the overall appeal of the product to the fans. This is not a friendly game of Chutes and Ladders we are talking about, here. Instead, this is a physical test of superiority. It is a battle that takes place on hardwood flooring, where our best physical specimens will matchup against your best physical specimens, and only one side will walk away victorious in the end.
If the NBA tries to hide, diminish, or eliminate physical and aggressive rivalries, they will ultimately lose appeal. Babe Ruthless is awarded the victory for this debate by recognizing the importance of these intense rivalries to the most important people in sports – THE FANS!