Don’t Hate the Player; Hate the Game

by Benjamin Studebaker

I’m an NBA fan–I love pro basketball. Like most NBA fans, I have a favorite team, my local Chicago Bulls. And like most talented teams, my favorite team has a nemesis, the Miami Heat. And while my Bulls have been knocked out of the playoffs, said Heat are still playing, and I watch every one of their playoff games so I can cheer for the opposing team. First it was Indiana in the conference finals, now it’s San Antonio in the NBA Finals. None of this sounds especially political, to this point, I expect, but I would like to explore a larger philosophical question stemming from this example–why do I dislike the Miami Heat so much, and is my dislike justifiable?

The purpose of sports, the reason sports can have value to people in the first place, is that they are entertaining. They are entertaining because they provide a harmless simulation of blood sport. We get to see extraordinarily athletic people pit their abilities against one another in a contest about which those involved care deeply, in part because they take pride in their ability, in part because of love for their fans, in part because they are paid money to care. In our day to day lives, most activity is not directly competitive, and where it is, it is usually unpleasant, because we ourselves are involved in the competition and have a stake in it. If two people compete for a job, there is a real risk that one will lose and be harmed by it. It is not pleasant to be in that situation. It is however, quite pleasant to what other people perform in those kinds of situations. We admire the skill, ability, and psychological poise of the combatants. In a sport like basketball, we also admire the cooperation within the competition–the way the players help one another so that the collective can overcome the opposition. We also enjoy the varied yet similar ways in which players aid that goal. All players run, jump, shoot, pass, defend, and so on, but different players are differently skilled in these areas. Different combinations of players play differently together. There is an element of strategy in it, not unlike warfare in its inherently competitive, analytic nature, but very much unlike warfare in that ultimately, no one is going to be seriously harmed by any of the possible outcomes. The losing players still make millions of dollars, the losing fans may be disappointed, but nothing has well and truly been done to them. Their pride may be wounded, but little more.

Different people find different aspects of a sport especially impressive or entertaining. For me, the most entertaining players in basketball are the centers. Traditionally, the center is exceptionally large, often 7 feet tall or larger still. Traditional centers score with their backs to the basket, using their height and strength to get position close to the hoop and shoot over defenders. They forced defensive teams to double team them, allowing them to kick the ball back out to open shooters. Think Shaquille O’Neal or Wilt Chamberlain. There are even a few smaller players who have been good at the style–Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were/are both excellent. While the Heat are a rival of my favorite team, I disliked them before that rivalry heated up. My initial dislike for the Heat spawns from the absence of a traditional center on their team. The Heat’s offence works in a quite nontraditional way. The Heat will use their star players, LeBron James or Dwayne Wade, to accelerate around defenders and cut to the basket. If insufficiently defended, James or Wade will attempt to score. If however the defense collapses, the Heat stars will pass out to three point shooters. Chris Bosh, their largest scoring player at 6’11”, takes most of his shots from mid-range, and has even begun taking three pointers. He does not play with his back to the basket.

I was always impressed by the great big players, because they are so unusual, so difficult to relate to on a physical level. They were able to do an array of things that other players could not do simply because they were the biggest, strongest, and longest people out there. I liked teams that favored that kind of play–Phil Jackson, the famous Bulls and Lakers coach, employed a triangle offence that was centered around back to the basket play. The Heat’s finals rival, the San Antonio Spurs still employ Tim Duncan, a master of the traditional style. When Chris Bosh takes a jump shot from 17 feet out, his style of play suddenly becomes far too relateable for someone his size. I can see myself shooting a jump shot. I can’t see myself as Shaquille O’Neal.

My disdain for the Heat ultimately comes from a dissatisfaction with their style of play, a belief that it is not basketball “as it should be”. The way the Heat play should not work. Big centers should be able to prevent players like James and Wade from getting to the basket, they should out-rebound the Heat and dominate them on the offensive end, taking advantage of the Heat’s lack of size and interior play. But despite my old fashioned beliefs about how basketball ought to be played, the Heat remain successful. The Heat are successful because the rules of the game have been changed to favor smaller players. Over the course of the last 20 years, the NBA has changed rules to favor the way the Heat play at the expense of my preferred style, eliminating various tools defenders used to use to prevent players from driving to the basket. These rule changes have opened up the court and made it easier for quicker, smaller players and harder for slower, bigger ones.

The result has been a whole generation of high speed, high scoring guards. NBA defenses and offences have both adjusted to suit the rule changes, and as a result the traditional style grows steadily rarer, with more teams focused on guard play than big man play.  This doesn’t really harm me, but nonetheless, I find it sad, and the Heat have become the focal point of my frustration. That said, it’s important to remember that LeBron James didn’t make the rules. The Heat play the way they play because it works in the system in which they play, not because they have some disdain for me or what I find entertaining. The Heat would like to be well-loved–if people like them, they sell more tickets, more jerseys, their players get into more commercials, in sum, they profit from popularity. The NBA changed the rules because it wanted games to be higher scoring, because most fans appreciate an efficient offence more than they do an efficient defense, and find athletic, fast players more entertaining than big, strong ones. The market decided what kind of basketball sold best, and my kind lost out. The system did me in, not LeBron James.

Nonetheless, in the thick of a competitive game between the Spurs and Heat, it’s hard for me to remember that I don’t really have any good reason for disliking LeBron James personally. He has never done anything to me, and I bet if I met him I’d find him to be a pretty cool person. Often the phrase “don’t hate the player; hate the game” is used as a self-justification by those who are hated, and dismissed as such by those who do the hating as nothing more than that. In truth, it’s a much better phrase–it’s a reminder that the public face of something, the person doing a thing we find unpleasant or objectionable, is easy to blame, but the true causes is usually an unseen force, some part of the structure, of the system, that makes that behavior appealing to some portion of people. The Heat want to win, and the system increasingly makes winning entail a play style I dislike, but it’s not the Heat’s fault. LeBron James deserves to be just as happy as any other person does. If I cheer against Miami, it must be about more than just a desire to see that team fail. It must be about a desire to see the opposing team’s style triumph. It can’t be personal. I like the Spurs’ style better, and I want it to succeed over the Heat’s style, but I have no reason for believing LeBron James to be any worse a person than say, the Spurs’ Tim Duncan. It’s not about Duncan winning and James losing, it’s about Duncan’s style overcoming James’, so that NBA teams might be influenced to emulate play styles I appreciate as opposed to ones I don’t, because I want a league that entertains me. That’s a perfectly fine desire, but I need not dehumanize the Miami Heat as people to nonetheless cheer their opponents as players.

And so it is throughout our politics–we often see individuals do revolting things in politics, things we strongly disagree with and find deeply immoral, but it’s important to remember that they act the way they act because the political system encourages that kind of behavior. We really mustn’t hate the player or the politician; we must object to the game, to the political system. Of course your average republican representative is going to oppose gay marriage, or stimulus, or universal health care, or what have you–how could the communities that elected those representatives have voted otherwise? Their voting choices reflect their nature, and the nature of the system that allows and encourages them to express their nature in this way.