With the National Basketball Association Finals in the limelight, the other intriguing NBA story has been "Will LeBron James leave the Cleveland Cavaliers?" Like many sports fans (especially those who reside in Ohio), I have been captivated by the LeBron saga.
Recently while providing a newspaper interview about the situation, I considered the social psychological features of why LeBron's decision is so powerful. Interestingly, this analysis implicated "the self" quite heavily. Here are a few of the thoughts that I had about the situation that implicated the role of sport fans' sense of self.
Self-ish concern #1: James is ours
In an era of free agency, the fact that players will "jump ship" for millions of dollars is nothing new. James's incredible talent (this year's playoffs notwithstanding) is undeniable, but why is the entirety of northeastern Ohio so wrapped up "in keeping James" that cities in the region are sponsoring events such as "LeBron Appreciation Day" (e.g., Akron's celebration planned for June 19)?
Unlike most players, James's history makes it very easy for people in northeast Ohio to view LeBron as tied to the self. James was a high school phenom in northeast Ohio (at Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School). He jumped from high school to the hometown professional basketball team without any sidetrip to a far-away university to play basketball. And unlike most professional athletes today, James actual lives in the area where he grew up. When James wins MVP titles, he returns to Akron to celebrate. Thus even in an era of "hired guns" who play professional sports and live thousands of miles away during the off season, James is hometown through and through.
As a result, it is psychologically very easy for James to be viewed as "part of the self." In the psychological literature, we refer to this phenomenon as "inclusion in the self." Given that James has only lived in northeast Ohio and identifies so strongly with it, it only increases the sense of inclusion in the self that fans in the region experience. Because he is from the area and identifies so strong with it, it increases the "just like us" feeling that fans experience (though clearly, the fans ignore facts such as his earning a $90M shoe contract from Nike before leaving his hometown high school, which certainly makes him unique).
Thus, the possibility that James will leave the Cavs is such an especially strong "threat to the self" for fans in the region because James ismuch more included in the self than most sports figures. Although it doesn't rise to the level of experiencing a divorce (at least, for most people!), his potential departure does feel like losing a friend or family member for many whose closets include many #23 Cavs jerseys.
Self-ish concern #2: James is successful
Although the Cavs did not deliver a NBA title this year, no one will argue that LeBron is incredibly successful (e.g., back-to-back MVP titles, six time NBA All-Star, numerous records and recognitions), and that his amazing athleticism has elevated the Cavs from mediocrity to perennial contender.
This success, of course, means his potential leaving is an especially big threat to fans' self-esteem. As I've noted in a previous blog, one of the compelling features of sportsfanship is that people can derive self-esteem from the teams they follow closely. This phenomenon, Basking in Reflected Glory, has been revealed in numerous scientific studies. For example, following wins by one's favorite sports team, people are more like to describe the game in first-person terms (e.g., WE won the game, WE played great) but are more likely to use third-person constructions following losses (e.g., THEY couldn't play defense, THEY really stunk tonight).
Although James's hometownness makes him psychologically compelling, the fact that he is arguably one of the greatest basketball players ever has implication for many fans' sense of self-worth, and thus, his closeness coupled with his success makes him especially important for fans' self-esteem. If you doubt the point, think about how many people wear #23 Cavs jerseys (i.e., physically attach themselves to James)!
Self-ish concern #3: Northeast Ohio has taken many hits to its self-esteem and needs LeBron
Although LeBron can help to elevate the self-esteem of fans in northeastern Ohio, his value in doing so is only amplified by the fact that the region has suffered considerably. A number of recent polls such as one conducted by Forbes rated Cleveland the most miserable city in the United States. Even though one can argue whether "the Mistake by the Lake" is deserving of such scorn, it is also the case that such negativity is heaped on northeast Ohio (along with its high joblessness rates, large number of foreclosures and bankruptcies, history of river fires, and famously bad weather).
In short, Cleveland (right or wrong) has endured considerable blows to its collective self-esteem over many years. Once again, psychological research has shown that when people take hits to their self-esteem, they try to find ways to restore it. Sometimes, those responses can be antisocial (e.g., the drunk who starts a bar fight following an insult), but in the case of Cleveland, Cavs fans have been able to be buoyed by a successful hometown talent in James.
As a result, the possibility that LeBron might leave the Cavs is especially poignant to residents of northeast Ohio because James represents a bright spot in a sea of less-than-positive news about the region. That is, James's value is greater in a hometown that has taken more than its fair share of blows to its collective self-esteem.
I could identify many other factors that contribute to the high interest value in keeping LeBron James a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers (e.g., his emphasis on being a team player, his relatively positive personal life), but these are three that struck me as being especially related to the self from a psychological perspective. As a Cavs fan myself, I do hope LeBron stays with the Cavs -- not only because I'm a fan of the team, but because I think there's enduring value in having fans being able to identify with a stable cast of characters on their team, and because it reaffirms that "money and trophies aren't everything in life."
Of course, part of what makes LeBron such a talent is his strong competitive nature, which makes winning a championship especially compelling for him. Thus like everyone else, I will continue to watch the news as events unfold (e.g., will Tom Izzo actually leave Michigan State to coach a NBA team?), hoping that my #23 Cavs jersey does not become memorabilia anytime soon!