If LeBron James leaves the Miami Heat, his teammate Dwyane Wade and Heat president Pat Riley will be devastated. But if he spurns the Cleveland Cavaliers he will, once more, rip the heart out of a beleaguered city. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert will likely write another angry diatribe in Comic Sans font about James’ selfishness and “cowardly betrayal” and post it to the team’s website.
If Kevin Love gets traded from the Minnesota Timberwolves, I hope they send him to a losing franchise like Milwaukee or Cleveland (with no LeBron). That would just serve him right for not wanting to be a Timberwolf (never mind that they are losers, too).
These are the kinds of reactions NBA free agency elicits: extreme and over the top. Team owners get angry. Former teammates feel snubbed. Fans feel betrayed and become emotionally overwrought. Others react with elation or vengeance. Why? What does it say about us that we get so worked up over professional athletes switching jobs?
Is it mere media sensationalism, exaggerating stories and hyping people up? Are we stuck in a fantasyland where we ride an emotional roller coaster based on the actions of our favorite players? Have sports become a fantasy novel or a reality TV series where we see ourselves in the plotline and live and die with the happenings? Or is it the feelings we have for players aren’t just those of a fan but rather those of a dependent, a family member?
At their base, such responses seem like idolatry, plain and simple. We have placed our happiness in the success of a player and his team. Good players are essential to the success of a team, so when they are added or subtracted our potential happiness is added to or subtracted from as well. But idolatry is only part of the explanation.
We respond the way we do not because of any single reason, but because of parts of all of them. Yes, the media spurs our responses and exaggerates our feelings, but the press is merely feeding off already-present stories and responses, thus creating a cycle of hype. We have developed affection for players, but that in itself is not a bad thing. It is actually deeply human and normal, so long as it isn’t an obsession or deep attachment. And it is only natural to find pleasure and happiness when a team we root for does well or has the prospects of doing well. The problem arises when we base our happiness, our mood, and our demeanor on that success. Then it is idolatry.
Saint Augustine famously said, “Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.” This isn’t a commendation of abstinence; it’s a statement of the challenge we face in doing things, even good things, in moderation, including being a sports fan. It is fun, engaging, emotional, and passionate, but it can easily become a god in our lives, causing us to ourselves in it. The right response isn’t to give it up completely but to seek that “perfect moderation”—the right balance between passion and putting sports in their rightful place.
UPDATE (12 p.m. EDT): LeBron James announced he plans to leave the Miami Heat and sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers.