Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Progressive Guide to the NBA Finals

This year's NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder, present something of a dilemma for progressive sports fans. This may surprise you; after all, isn't everyone north of the Panhandle just reflexively rooting for the Thunder (or, more accurately, against LeBron James)? And, of course, they are- but that doesn't make the Thunder the white knights in the situation.

In fact, given the way the Thunder's history, you may find it very hard to root for them (Especially if you live in the Pacific Northwest). It sure seems like The Commish retaliated by recruiting some Oklahoma City money men to buy the Seattle Supersonics and move them to Oklahoma City. Dave Zirin lays out the situation and articulates the moral ramifications of it here.

As for the Heat, yes, "The Decision" was distasteful. And yes, the Heat all seem to reflexively whine the moment they actually have to work for something. But as Zirin notes: "Strip away the drama and the Heat are called “evil” because their star players exercised free agency and—agree or disagree with their decision—took control of their own careers." I think there's an idealistic level on which we have to accept that.

Moreover, the Heat's likability program seems like the media setting up a "narrative" as much as anything. James' comments are relentlessly, ridiculously dissected, like Cold War Kremlinologists determining who's out of favor based on the Premiere's pauses in a speech. Inevitably, sports pundits find something to object to, but I gaurantee James hasn't thought about what he's saying as much as those pundits have.

Yet, for all of that, Zirin's "Let's Go Heat!" conclusion is too simplistic- and it omits some key facts. I get that this is about fans exercising some self-respect, about telling the NBA it can't get away with what it did to Seattle...but then, what, exactly, are Oklahoma City fans supposed to do here? They got an NBA team out of it, and by all accounts, they're a pretty amazing fan base now. Should they not get to enjoy this, should they not root on their team, because Seattle's loss was their gain? What about Cleveland fans? Those fans got their hearts ripped out just as assuredly as Seattle did. If they root for James now, I don't see how that's an exercise of self-respect, nor do I understand why I should stand in solidarity with one, and not the other.

Besides, how is the Heat's ownership any better? As Kate Perkins points out, it's easy to line up the players of one team and the owners of another and find a pretty clear moral divide, but that's a pretty stacked deck. Ownership against ownership, the situation is more complicated. Miami-Dade County pays for the Heat's use of AmericanAirlines Arena, and the Heat even seem to be cooking the books to minimize the amount they pay back. The biggest difference here seems to be that the Heat's owners were more successful extortionists than Oklahoma City's.

And yeah, James, Wade, Bosh- on one level, they were just exercising their rights as players, rights that they indisputably should have. But on another level, there are some clear anti-competitive impulses in their decisions. Look at what James said when he arrived in Miami, promising more than 7 championships. There's something monopolistic about what they were trying to do, and it's okay to find that distasteful.

So, we're left with two fuck-head ownership groups. One is a little more brazen about being fuck-heads, but the other is a little more successful at it. We've got one group of players who seems more likable than the other, but not as much as the media wants us to believe (and anyway, I'm sure one of you guys can convince me that Durant or Westbrook or somebody is a prick, too).

If you give a shit about social justice, there's really not enough difference to make a difference.

That's normal, of course; it's very rare for a player or team to so completely embody a progressive ideal that the in-game triumphs represent even symbolic victories, let alone tangible ones. And your rooting interest alone (outside of financial support, as I assume that if any of you have already bought a Durant jersey or hold Miami season tickets, you don't see the dilemma here in the first place) isn't a very effective way to encourage progressive change, anyway.

Still, I think it's fair to say that one team is less reactionary than the other...I'm just not sure which. I'll leave that up to you guys' personal judgment. And once you figure that out, you can root based on that- it's as good as any other reason to back a team. Just remember that if you want to make a more socially responsible NBA, attacking the issues- which really aren't team or player specific anyway, they're generally league-wide (or at least, league-tolerated) problems- is going to be more effective than which team you decide you hope has more points when you idly flip over to ABC.

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