Cleveland Sports and Racial Justice

This reflection was originally posted on June 17, 2015, shortly after the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.

This has been a rather eventful several weeks, and I haven’t had time to even respond to a lot of the more important things that have happened: Kalief Browder, the Clinton prison escape (been there twice, but my office did not represent either escapee), the finding of probable cause in the Tamir Rice shooting, Caitlyn Jenner, etc. I haven’t even really had time to wrap my head around the Rachel Dolezal saga. I know many of you will disagree with me on several of these issues in turn, and I want to talk to you about them. I just don’t know when I’m going to have the time.

Sports are around to distract us, but to also allow us to project narratives onto essentially random occurrences and to provide us reflections of what we see as our values. Perhaps this is why, when games 2 and 3 happened, people could not help but fall into the “blue-collar lunch-pail mentality” of the Rust Belt Cavaliers in trying to “out-tough” the “smooth new-age next-generation finesse” that the Silicon Valley Warriors had coasted on all season long. Ultimately, this predicted the ending that actually happened: good old-fashioned hard work could only take you so far. But far from struggling to find a new identity five years after LeBron left, fifteen years after LTV Steel went belly-up, twenty-five years after The Shot, thirty-five years after the summers of mob wars and constant car bombs as well as the default of city finances, forty-five years after the river caught fire for the fourteenth time and the population stopped growing, and 50 years, 5 months, 20 days, and ~6 hours (and STILL counting) after the last championship awarded to a local team, Cleveland is a new city, working its way back from the brink and truly thriving as not only a geographical center of population but an economic engine and a place with an identity. (Seriously, Cleveland is cool now. No, seriously.)

And perhaps this is more than a little bit of a stretch, but I believe that in growing up as a kid picked last for the sports team who roots for the sports team that gets picked last in national circles (as is warranted at this point by their track record) is one of the reasons why I feel particularly drawn to social justice in particular. It makes sense why Cleveland isn’t getting its fair share of bites at the apple: we don’t have the tax incentives of Florida, the weather of…Florida, the famous club scene of…Florida, or the track record of…the Red Wings. On top of that, we simply appear to be incredibly unlucky, perhaps partially since small-market teams are generally not at the top of commissioners’ wish lists for Finals/World Series/Cup/Super Bowl appearances. The objective unfairness did not escape me, nor did it escape my friends, when we were growing up. But we didn’t even consider jumping allegiances. We were Cleveland, and we knew that being able to stand at the summit once we reached it would not only be a huge payoff but also a fundamental acknowledgement that the little guy always has a shot. (Also, let’s be real, we HATED that token Steelers troll—there was always one in your class.)

Obviously, this was not some sort of Cinderella eight-seed run (ironically, only accomplished in the NBA playoffs by the marquee of marquee teams, the Knicks). But when you’ve had to deal with such a long history of problems, even the inevitable doesn’t feel inevitable (see, e.g., the 2009 Cavs). But that history is there, and it informs both our successes and our failures.

And so maybe when people ask me why I’m doing that kind of work, whether defending or fighting affirmatively for the marginalized, the poor, the Black, the most vulnerable among us, I’ll just simply reply, “Why do you root for the Indians in Major League?” And perhaps they’ll mention the 30 years (at the time of the movie) of losing an average of 90 games before the time in which the movie is set. And then I’ll go “see?” and they’ll be confused.

But as Martin Luther King Jr. most definitely once said: “The arc of the athletic universe is long, but it bends, we think, toward Cleveland. Eventually. No, really, stop laughing at me.”

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