McBride: Kings of Vapor

Why did Art Modell and LeBron James throw away the love of their hometown? Why did Tiger Woods and Ben Roethlisberger embarrass their fans? The answer is generally the last thing any of them would ever tell you.

Tell me you were disappointed. Tell me you were sad. Tell me you were angry.

Just don't tell me you were surprised. I won't believe you.

Not after all we've been through.

* * *

It has been more than a month since LeBron James announced on national television he was abandoning his home state and hometown to "take his talents to South Beach."

It's a fashion that never seemingly goes out of style: Cleveland's sports fans trotted onto the national stage, whereupon we are mercilessly thrashed by events outside of our control.

Unfortunately for the newest member of the Miami Heat, the oft-disappointed locals were not in an understanding mood. Years of pent-up frustration exploded, and the one-time local hero savaged for his lack of loyalty.

James' crass TV special for ESPN's slavering cameras appeared to mostly serve the young man's preening sense of self-importance, while ensuring that his hometown was humiliated on the national stage.

While some of James' many enablers sputtered with disbelief at his behavior, at least Nike was smart enough to take their giant "Witness" mural down.

* * *

It is a cliché, but it's true. Technical people will often struggle with interpersonal relationships and, in general, with dealing with people. I'm living proof.

As a stereotypical techie, I've spent my whole life trying to figure out human beings, generally without even the slimmest hint of success. My engineer's mind doesn't handle irrational, emotional behavior. I'm much more comfortable with good old reliable, predictable technology.

As a whole, we're remarkably difficult critters to manage, as our relatively prodigious intellect and ability to incorporate a lifetime's worth of social experiences results in what could best be called "unpredictability." We rarely operate with the re-assuring adherence to process like that of computers or motors. People are not built to spec.

But perhaps we're learning enough about human behavior to understand why prominent people in sports like James, Ben Roethlisberger, and one-time Browns owner Art Modell all behave in ways that destroy their reputations and spurn those who at one-time were their fiercest advocates.

To begin to understand why the King of Cleveland would throw his crown into the trash, we first have to abandon logic.

* * *

Tear down that LeBron James sign. He has out-lived his local usefulness to the Nike Corporation. They will simply move the show to Miami, like locusts finding a new field to ravage.

Perhaps, as many have suggested, Nike should put up a huge sign of more-loyal Browns kick returner and wide receiver Josh Cribbs.

No offense to the enormously gifted and exciting Cribbs, but I think that this is precisely, exactly, the wrong answer.

* * *

To the surprise of an admittedly sparse group of uninterested observers, I lasted 15 years working for a then-"Big Five" firm in the fast-paced, cut-throat consulting business of the 80s and 90s. Ultimately, I made it one step short of the brass ring: Partner. My upward climb ended at "Associate Partner," which I considered not-too-bad for a travel-avoiding techie with more than a trace amount of introversion.

Throughout my time there, I noticed a repeated event that I came to call "Partnerization." Not always, but far too often, I found that ascending to the top level in the company would yield a sort of behavioral makeover in some of my colleagues. Sense of humor seemed to disappear in some and screaming picked up as the communication vehicle of choice for others. People who were easy to get along with became a lot more onerous to deal with. I always figured it was the increased pressure of the role.

That was until this weekend, when I read an essay in the Wall Street Journal that gave me some more insight into Partnerization and, perhaps, on why so many beloved figures like a LeBron James behave in a manner that would be, at best, considered irrational. Or even why a Ben Roethlisberger did what he did. Or Tiger Woods. Or many other examples we can cite of our prominent sports stars acting like complete idiots.

It is all about power, and how it makes those who acquire it forget basic decision-making and social skills.

I can't pretend to summarize the entire article, but it argues that the acquisition of power and authority has roughly the same effect on behavior as physical damage to the "orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that is crucial for empathy and decision-making."

LeBron James and others like him are the sports equivalent of occupying the corner office. They are surrounded by those who fawn over them. Worse, unlike most executives, they have had the rules bent for them for much of their young lives, and, in the case of James, they wind up with more power in the organization than anyone except the owner.

Studies prove that Machiavellian behavior rarely gets one to the top, and this correlates with my personal experience. I've accumulated a few knife marks in my back over the years, and I can't argue that anyone who (from my selfish perspective) slapped a shiv between my shoulder blades ever wound up in an enviable position. Studies back this up: people who act in Machiavellian ways generally wind up exposed and left without a great deal of authority. That's not how you climb the ladder.

Once given power and authority, however, all bets are off.

One study of human behavior tested those who were led to feel powerful in some way, and those who were not. After getting them into the appropriate frame of mind, testers then asked test subjects to write a letter on their foreheads.

The result was that those who felt powerful wrote the letter in a way that would appear correctly from their perspective but backwards from the perspective of those reading it. People without power tended to write the letter so that others could read it.

Those who felt powerful focused on themselves. Those who did not focused on others.

The researchers' conclusion, vastly simplified: Power decreases your empathy for others, sometimes drastically.

So why did LeBron James abandon his hometown? Why did Art Modell stab Browns fans in the back? Why do so many athletes act in callous or sometimes-illegal ways?

It has to do with empathy. Despite what they say, the powerful may simply think the rules don't apply, or have addled decision-making, or lose touch with a fundamental quality that helps separate human beings from others: Empathy. To some degree, they cease to care about others.

In the case of LeBron, you can and should disparage his decision, but don't forget ESPN, Nike, the Cavs organization, and ourselves for giving him the disease.

Selfishness and abandoning those who love you are symptoms.

Power is the disease.

* * *

At some point when I was young, some teacher in an unremembered classroom explained to us the various levels of love.

There was "love of self," she said, referring to self-adoration and greed. There was love for another, speaking of romantic love and caring for one's children, and there was "love of humanity." The latter was the highest-evolved form of love, she said.

I remembered that for more than 40 years. I don't remember her, or even where I was when I was told this, but the message has always stuck with me.

I suspect, as with my consulting career, that I'll fall short of reaching that top rung. There's still selfishness and materialism in me: I'm focused on providing for my family. I'd like one of those 12-core Power Macs someday. If I don't get the video game Halo: Reach within two weeks of it being released next month, my brain will explode.

I've gotten to know some people, though, who have come to give away nearly everything they ever receive. They don't seem to care about themselves at all, only others. Some of these are people of faith, some are endlessly devoted to their children, some have a cause. All are exceptional. All are inspirational.

Our "heroes" aren't in their league.

LeBron James' mansion will collapse someday. Art Modell didn't last long at all as an NFL owner after betraying Cleveland, failed to pass the team to his son, and will likely not live to see himself in the Hall of Fame. Tiger Woods surrendered his dignity long ago. Ben Roethlisberger's quarterbacking skills will eventually abandon him.

Nothing built as a monument to yourself ever lasts.

In the near-decade since I left my career as a consultant, not a single one of those partners who at times depended on my technical skills to survive their promises to clients has ever reached out to me. Not a single one. The software we built was undoubtedly replaced long ago. I look back on a long career that was once a central pillar of my life and see nothing. The paychecks were long ago spent. All that work is a vapor.

I may not have learned much in my decades searching for purpose, but I learned this: In the end, it's only what you do for others that matters. It's the trace elements of goodness that you instill in your children, the little lessons you teach like the one I mentioned above. Only the imprint on future generations will survive time.

Once you give away love, like LeBron James and Art Modell did, you have little left. And nothing that lasts.

It's a choice made only by the insane.

* * *

Not long after LeBron James abandoned us to wear his Scottie Pippen mask, I saw a number of Browns fans suggest that we should replace Lebron's mural with a gigantic mural of Joshua Cribbs. Photoshop was invoked, mock-ups appeared.

Perhaps instead of making the same mistake, the Nike Corporation should pay for its sins by installing a different mural.

Instead of a player, let's put our entire Browns team on the mural, running out to do battle. And have the fans shown supporting them, since without those fans, the team would itself have no point.

Let's not Witness the false adoration of the endlessly fallible.

Instead, have the sign tell an inescapable truth of what it is to be human.



Barry McBride is a one-time useful member of society who decided he wanted to write about football. He hates it when his email client mistakes email messages for spam, so please contact him via the OBR contact form, via Twitter, or on the forums.

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