I was watching some high school athletes being honored on TV recently when the host asked one of the honorees whether or not she agreed with the words of John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach who said, "Sports don't build character, they reveal it." I don't recall exactly how she felt, but two very different episodes happened in the past few weeks demonstrating how true statement this can be regardless of how serious or inconsequential the actual incidents may have been.
Now, I may not be the best player on the court or on the field, but I always make it a point to recognize an opponent's accomplishments even when it has been at my expense (which probably happens more often than not). Frankly, I don't know too many people who enjoy defeat. It's deflating. It can make you feel inadequate. It's humiliating. At the same time there are few people I admire less than sore losers. You know the type. You beat them fair and square and they make excuses for their poor performance. They storm off. They refuse to acknowledge an opponent's job well done.
It's been about three weeks, yet I'm still obsessing about it. Ok, maybe obsess is a strong word, nevertheless, the event is still on my mind and important enough for me, at least, to still discuss. In this case the event in question is the snub offered up by Cleveland Cavalier's megastar LeBron James.
If you are unfamiliar with what took place, let me break it down for you. The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic were battling each other for a spot in the NBA Finals. Orlando won the series. At the end of the sixth and deciding game, James, who is arguably the league's best player and biggest star, chose not to offer congratulations to his opponents and instead headed straight for the locker room - he did this in spite of the fact his coaches and teammates all hung around long enough to exchange handshakes with the winning team.
When was he criticized for his behavior, James chose to defend it by claiming he was a winner and that as a winner, he could not simply go over and congratulate his opponent for a beat down well executed. "It's hard for me to congratulate somebody after you just lose to them," James told the Washington Post the day after the loss. "I'm a winner. It's not being a poor sport or anything like that. If somebody beats you up, you're not going to congratulate them. That doesn't make sense to me. I'm a competitor. That's what I do. It doesn't make sense for me to go over and shake somebody's hand." For a guy who many consider to be an intelligent athlete, this may have been the dumbest, lamest excuse I have ever heard in my life.
On the surface, I can understand his sentiments. Cleveland was heavily favored to win the series and many had predicted the team would win the NBA title. Instead the team faltered against a talented and well coached Orlando Magic squad that beat the Cavaliers in six games. James was understandably humiliated. Unfortunately he also showed his lack of grace. And this is the part that surprises me, and I am sure many of you, most.
While some of his defenders claimed the whole thing was insignificant, others tried to chalk it up to his youth and lack of experience. After all, James had been doted upon and lauded and perhaps even feared so much that he had no idea what it is like to lose when everyone expects you to win. I guess it's plausible, but I have a hard time accepting it.
Prior to this incident, we had come to see James as an extraordinary and fierce competitor with amazing skills, who at the same time seemed to come across as someone who was humble and grateful and perhaps even graceful. Communication scholar Walt Fisher gives us perspective when discussing the idea of the narrative paradigm. As I understand Fisher, we as humans don’t just tell stories but we live our lives by the stories we tell and purvey our values through these stories (Dubin, 2009). If we apply this logic to what we saw with James, the negative reaction that came about in the aftermath becomes clear since James' behavior was not consistent with the stories we had learned about him. There was a lack of what Fisher calls fidelity. Had it been an Allen Iverson or even Kobe Bryant, the reaction may have been much different; while the act would be no less graceful, we might conclude the behavior to be consistent with a bad boy (Iverson) or one we often perceive as arrogant or selfish (Bryant).
James' behavior wasn't the only troubling episode witnessed recently. Something far more disturbing happened after the Lakers clinched another NBA title. I like to jokingly refer to it as the "Victory Riot." The most unfortunate thing is there is nothing funny about a crowd of mostly young men setting fires, looting stores, and generally terrorizing the public.
In the past, the victory riot seemed innocent enough - fans rushing the field and bringing down the goal posts after their team's upset victory, perhaps. Sadly, the behavior exhibited by today's revelers has devovled precipitously. While there is research that has been conducted on the craziness of collective violence, researchers have a difficult time categorizing the destructive behavior that we have too often seen following a team winning a championship. Marx (1970) calls these "issueless riots." Not only do they lack any grounding whatsoever, Marx also points out another fascinating detail: the victory riot is an anticipated event. Perhaps you noticed the public service announcements with Kobe, Derek Fisher, and Phil Jackson imploring folks to celebrate responsibly should the Lakers win it all. (Obviously they must have all taken a collective bathroom break during those ads).
In a traditional "riot" (to term it ironically), events happen spontaneously and are the by-product of some sort of strain on the collective psyche (economic, political, social, etc.). But the victory riot contains none of those symptoms. It's supposed to be a time for celebration, yet if you saw the images following the Lakers' championship you could easily be fooled into thinking this anything but a "celebratory" moment. Throwing a brick through the windshield of a bus and frightening the passengers definitely stretches the meaning of rejoicing in your team's success. And the worst part? It seems as if efforts to quell this type behavior are futile as we see it repeated all over the country.
Two radically different incidents with two very different levels of consequence. Yet in a narrow way they bear some similarity. John Wooden was absolutely right.
Well, I gotta scoot.