While the fans in Dallas (and Cleveland) are understandably elated at the outcome of the NBA finals, I feel some sadness. One of our greatest modern basketball players, Lebron James, obviously overcome by the series loss of his nouveau Heat, has exposed the raw underbelly of professional sports by what could be the most insensitive, hurtful post-game comment since the invention of ESPN. Others will talk and write about the Heat's performance, in particular about the disappointing effort of James. I was troubled more by the sentiments he candidly expressed. In the post-game interview, James said:
"All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that. They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal. But they have to get back to the real world at some point."
While Lebron was certainly accurate -- we all woke up today with the same life we had yesterday -- he will not. He had again besmirched his reputation. He seems to be ready to cash in whatever chips of public good will he had remaining after his "Escape to South Beach" escapade last year.
Lebron James is not the first public person to demonstrate acute arrogance and an utter disdain for the general public. One would have thought, however, that Lebron would have learned to handle failure by now. His remark reminded me of Richard Nixon castigating the press after losing the governor's race in California in 1962: "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference." Nixon, of course, did not keep this promise, much to our national regret. Lebron will likely get some good public relations coaching over the summer and come back ready to lead his Heat teammates towards their first championship, assuming there is a season this fall -- a major assumption considering the current state of the labor talks.
We have a tacit arrangement with professional athletes that requires both sides of the bargain to stay within their appointed roles. As fans, we complain about our heroes when they fail to perform up to our expectations. We complain about how much they get paid. We criticize their lack of loyalty. We share their victories and suffer along with them when they lose. In exchange, professional athletes are supposed to perform to the best of their abilities and thank us for our support. We can ridicule them. They cannot ridicule us.
Occasionally, both sides break the bargain. Fans have been known to throw things at athletes while they are playing. Hurling epithets is allowed; nine-volt batteries are not. We must also stay off the playing surface. They play the game; we don't. Occasionally, when lubricated with enough beer we forget those limitations and run out on field, but for the most part we respect the proscenium boundaries. Athletes are our heroes and (like it or not) our role models and, in exchange for the public glory and their abundant pay, they relinquish some of their privacy.
Most athletes understand those rules, although that has not always been the case. Ty Cobb once entered the stands in New York to beat up a severely handicapped heckler. When he was not beating up fans, he was attacking hotel service workers and beating up his teammates. Thank goodness, he was the exception and not the rule. And then there are the athletes who used performance-enhancing drugs. While clearly violating either the rules of the game or the law, they have only done so to try to play better. For a while, we even enjoyed their enhanced performances.
But athletes should not remind us about the hum-drum lives we lead as compared with their lives -- the lives of the rich and famous. Lebron was understandably upset, and maybe he can be excused. In less than a year, however, he has transformed his personae from the shining knight of Akron, Ohio to the spoiled brat of South Beach. That's a shame.