Identity, Belonging, and Redemption in Sport
During LeBron James’s first stint in Cleveland, his image was glorified across an entire downtown building with the words “We Are All Witnesses” graven above his outstretched hands. The connection was clear: This was the second coming, the long-awaited advent of His Airness, Michael Jordan. The oversized poster, part of a massive Nike sponsorship, featured James’s signature move, tossing chalk into the air at the scorer’s table, and wearing number 23—all pages out of Jordan’s playbook.
The city of Cleveland responded with enormous support: Their king had come. Ticket prices skyrocketed, #23 jerseys flew off the shelves, and the wins began to pile up. But when James, branded in his teenage years by Sports Illustrated as “The Chosen One,” infamously announced he was taking his talents to South Beach, Cleveland revolted. Fans burned his jersey in the streets, and the team’s owner blasted James in an open letter, noting the player’s “cowardly betrayal,” as demonstrated by the “narcissistic, self-promotional” decision.
Four years later, of course, James decided to return and Cleveland woke up with the king. The team finally took down “the letter” from its official Web site, and fans happily bought hundreds of thousands of new #23 jerseys. Cleveland’s prodigal son came home, and all was forgiven.
Why did Cleveland feel so betrayed by James’s move to Miami, and so vindicated by his return? Why do we sports fans identify so deeply with our sports teams?
The answer is simple: There are no such things as spectator sports, and we are more than witnesses. To borrow the phrase, we are all participants.