Wednesday, July 28, 2010

LeBron James and the Myth of American Manliness

Sports opinion people (such as Charles Barkley on yesterday's Pardon the Interruption) have of late begun to impugn LeBron James' manliness.

First, sports opinion people criticized him for selfishness. Normally in sports selfishness is determined by how much money one insists on making, especially if one's performance is below average for that amount of money, or by how much the player keeps or insists on receiving the ball/rock/shrunken head, especially if one's performance does not merit that amount of time. Generally speaking, selfishness is not measured by the lengths one goes to in order to win a championship. It's taken as a given that the ultimate goal of all players is to win a championship and that having this goal is not selfishness but sportsmanship. On those criteria, James' move to Miami was not particularly selfish since he took less money overall to play with people who are rather notoriously ballhogs and so would, presumably, be giving up some of his scoring time to assist the others. Thus, according to our ordinary sportswriter criteria, James was not selfish.

Second, sports people they criticized him for disloyalty for leaving Cleveland. This criticism makes sense, but it has become so commonplace in contemporary sports for stars to leave with free agency or demand trades when they are not free agents or for teams to demand special favors lest they leave that it makes little sense to single out James for disloyalty especially when the vicious and hypocritical attacks from the spurned Cleveland Cavaliers owner showed even greater disloyalty. Players often move from team to team, but almost never does an owner attack a player in print. So, while perhaps we should admire loyalty, and James did not exhibit as much (aside from playing seven seasons in Cleveland of all places) as some would like, it's clear that he exhibited more by playing those seven years than many other players ever show. And why should a player be loyal to a team that would cut him at the first sign that he was no longer worth the money? Loyalty is just too hard to come by in professional sports to justify lambasting a player for lacking it.

Third, the sports experts criticized him for narcissism for announcing his decision in a prime-time press conference. Perhaps this is narcissistic although it certainly is odd for professional TV talking heads to criticize a sports figure of narcissism. This seems especially odd in an age when players seem to prefer appearing on sports highlights than in winning games. The most appalling part of the press conference was not that James called it, but that the ESPN interviewer insisted on prolonging it beyond all reason. So, perhaps this was narcissism, or perhaps it was just bad advice about how to deliver his decision to the public. Surely enough people wanted to know about his decision that having a press conference may have seemed like a better idea than simply a press release. But professional sports often seems a home for professional narcissists, so, again, I'm not sure how James stands out.

Finally, there seemed not to be further grounds for special moral condemnation of James except perhaps one, that James was insufficiently manly, that he should be "The Man" and not part of a group of equal partners in the enterprise of winning a championship. On this view, James should have stayed where he had been drafted (and if being selected because of a random drawing is not sufficient grounds for loyalty, I don't know what is!) and should struggle until he won a championship.

Unfortunately these thinkers also believe that: (1) Cleveland was not capable of adding players who would make it possible for them to win, and (2) James' worth as a player must be judged on the basis of his team winning championships. Given these two facts, the only response James can have if he wants to be judged to be a great player is to move to a different team, one which could attract additional players capable of aiding him in winning a championship. The alternative is to remain snared in the Manliness Trap, to continue to work at a Sisyphean task and hope that somehow his virtue will result in success. The problem with what James did was that he opted out of this trap; he refused to continue to attempt to achieve an end which he did not have the means to attain.

Critics say that he should simply work harder. You don't have the tools to win the championship? Do more with less; work harder; be more effective; get more out of the players--the tools--you have; be a man!

So, why does this matter? Because James is being criticized because he refused to play his part in the quintessential American drama in the early 21st century. The American worker is asked to do what James is asked to do: achieve success in a context in which such success is largely impossible. The American worker cannot work for the same wage that the Pakistani can, yet the punditocracy says that we just have to work harder, smarter and more efficiently. To keep American corporations from moving overseas for cheaper labor, American workers somehow have to work cheaper than the cheapest overseas labor. When Americans lose their jobs and cannot find work, with five workers for every job, we just have to be more determined in looking for work, not to be so lazy and dependent on government largesse (which is insurance most of us already paid into ourselves), or go back to school and make ourselves smarter. The fault is always in ourselves; our failure to get work, or to do more work for less, is a failure of our manliness.

The mainstream view is that Americans should still be the kings of the world economy, and individual Americans should all be self-made men (or persons) whose wealth depends only on our own moral worth--our hard work, determination, and smarts. But Americans are largely not in control of their economic destiny; they are less in control of it than at any time since the 1950s; and they are even less in control of it than are the dreaded socialist Europeans. We, both men and women, are caught in a "Manliness Trap" in which we continue to value ourselves based on our economic status, while our economic status is largely outside our control. And the only socially-approved solution to this problem is for us to dig deeper, work harder and just be more manly (even the women).

James escaped this trap. And that's what so upsets the sports pundits. It is not that they consciously endorse corporate control over American life, but that they all fall for the same way of looking at the relation of success and virtue. Alas, most of us do not have the option James has, but we can at least recognize that our value as human beings does not depend on our economic worth, and we cannot expect that economic success depends only on us.

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