In Defense of Reason Part 5: American Virtuo$ity

On June 7, 2012 Lebron James, the starting small forward for the Miami Heat, provided basketball fans around the world with a performance that can only be described as historic. James’ 45 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 assists in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals makes him the only basketball player since Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain in 1968 to accomplish a comparable feat in a play-off game. James’ effort helped save his team from elimination in game six, and in game seven of the series Lebron sealed the deal by vaulting his team into the NBA Finals, leading all scorers with 31 points. Whether or not James will capture his first NBA championship is still an open question, but whatever the outcome his actions (or lack thereof) will be discussed and analyzed ad nauseam.

Despite James’ impressive professional accomplishments (which include being a one-time NBA Scoring Champion, a four-time NBA All Defensive Team Honoree, and a three-time NBA MVP) he has been repeatedly ridiculed as an underachiever for his inability to win an NBA Title. At first glance one could dismiss this critique as a first-world problem. After all, Lebron James is a 27-year-old, multi-million dollar superstar whose earnings from endorsements alone trifle the lifetime income of most people on the planet. Who cares if pundits and peers jeer him for being so good that he should be better? As a defender of reason I believe that we all should care, because just like ignorance knows no bounds, unreason can cloud the judgment of politicians and sports fans alike––and in both cases they reveal startling truths about the American psyche.

First and foremost, professional sports are not about the thrill of competition, having fun, or promoting the goodness of the game. The modern industry of sports entertainment in the United States is about profit, and profit comes from winning. This inconvenient truth creates a situation where the modern athlete is not simply a sight to behold, but a product to be sold. And like all capitalist products, the beginning of this process is always exploitive. Just consider how much money the Disney-ABC Television Group made from selling commercial spots on ESPN by covering Lebron James’ high school games, or the collective revenue the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has garnered for manufacturing the inane term student-athlete? Despite how much the infusion of corporate wealth has benefited athletes’ overall compensation, these riches have also had the detrimental effect of reinforcing American customer culture. Virtuosity, or the ability to make something difficult look easy, has become a commodity: a dehumanizing experience to be sure. First the virtuoso is marveled at, then rewarded, and finally possessed. By the end of this process, these 40 million dollar slaves become a debtor, not just to their respective owners but to millions of loyal, cheering customers. Winning, therefore, becomes less about athletic pride or the joy of victory, but the only way an athlete can justify his/her existence.

This concept of an athlete’s dehumanizing debt to fans, owners, and universities may seem overstated, but consider the history of Lebron James himself. In July of 2010 James announced, during a live televised ESPN special, that he would leave the Cleveland Cavaliers via free agency for the Miami Heat. Despite the unwise venue of this announcement and the blatant self-promotion it represented, the public response to The Decision can only be described as a massive overreaction. James’ effigy and jerseys were burned in the streets. City leaders expressed their fear that his departure would lead to economic turmoil. And Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, released an open letter condemning James’ as a coward and traitor to all things wholesome. At best, Gilbert’s reaction was an example of unchecked emotion; at worse, his reaction was (in the words of Jesse Jackson) the master-slave mentality coming to full fruition.

As for the players themselves, the unhealthy correlation between winning and profit fosters a win at all cost mentality that is damaging to one’s social health. According to TNT correspondent David Alderidge, one unnamed hall of fame basketball player commented that, “the problem with [winning championships] is that you have to get so close to the line in terms of anger…playing angry…playing with a rage and a fury…that a lot of guys don’t want to go there.” But, alas, many athletes are socially pressured to “go there” because they feel the weight of being an investment, rather than a person. The recent video obtained by CNN capturing California irrigation official (and little league head coach), Anthony Sanchez, violently beating his stepson for failing to catch a baseball, is the perfect example of this issue. But the real problem is not that a little leaguer was beaten, or that Lebron James was unjustly criticized. The real problem is that when athletes are commodified, their greatness is reduced to an expectation. Then we lose part of the spectacle; we lose the ability to distinguish the virtuoso from the novice; and, like so many Wall Street executives, we lose ourselves in a game without winners.

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Lebron James photo: Getty Images

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Chauncey Dennie is a sarcastic, egotistical iconoclast. His contrarian nature often leads him into logical circles that he playfully dismisses as philosophic rigor. If he had any sense at all he would take advantage of his mediocre skills, his high-priced education, and his hometown location in Washington DC to find a way to take over the world — or at least benefit more from capitalism. He’s an entirely-too-emotionally-open control freak whose favorite logical fallacies are straw man and red herring.