Moving Target: The Absurd Need To Find A New Sports Villain

It’s been over a week since the Miami Heat won the NBA title, yet it’s hard to be sure if the vitriol towards the franchise or LeBron James has abated or not. If you caught the post-championship appearance on “Late Night” where the three-time MVP was given a standing ovation from the crowd, you’d probably have a little more hope for humanity after all. Or, you probably seethe even more at the mere mention of his name than eight nights ago, where he dropped a triple-double on your hairline jokes and snarky quips about winning multiple titles.

To be honest, he gives not one damn about all of that. If not for learning his lessons from “The Decision,” his id would tell him to quote Keyshawn Johnson, and say “IT DON’T MATTER; I GOT A RING!"

Yet, something fascinating happened as the second half of Game Five wound down. People began asking who would be the next target of rage from sports fans?

At first glance, this question DEMANDED an answer! Just as we demand yes or no, black or white, rap or rock, Popeye’s or KFC on a regular basis, we collectively need that definitive answer in order to charge up our emotions for next fall. Or, at least, to entertain the pop culture vultures for the moment.

And when you consider the question on face value, the answers make up an All-Star team in and of themselves. Dwight Howard. Carmelo Anthony. Chris Paul. Kevin Durant, perhaps. For the hell of it, Kobe Bryant. Or LeBron … again. Dare to expand that question outside of the NBA, and the list grows. Michael Vick. Tim Tebow (stop laughing). Alexander Ovechkin. Even Bryce Harper.

So we have our answers, right? We can load the clip, set the rifle, and look at the proverbial telescopic sight on whichever athlete can inspire our venom effortlessly.

Here’s the rub, though. There’s probably something wrong with sports fandom in that this question is even asked.

It’s one thing to go for the clichéd inquiry of which player has more pressure to win a championship now that LeBron has his first. Of all the ways that athletic success is judged, none tends to be more unfair and incomplete than the title count. From that logic alone, somehow John Salley, let alone Eddy Curry, is better than Patrick Ewing. Every professional athlete with a career long enough to remain in pursuit of a championship feels the burden to win one because that’s the inherent pressure of trying to be the very best of the best there is.

It’s another entity altogether to basically ask, “Who can we hate on until (s)he wins a title?”

Simply put, hate sells. As much as sex does in other areas of society, only in politics and sports has hate sold equally as well, if not better. It not only kicks up television viewership a few notches, but it opens more taps in sports bars, drums up more merchandise sales, and inspires more incendiary and absurd media than you could ever read (hello, Scott Raab).

And this isn’t the accepted "hate" in sports where you can passionately boo the opposing team because … well, it’s the opposing team. It’s not even the "hate" coaxed out of fans when a player or coach soaks in the boos because (s)he embraced being the villain. This is the kind that surpasses the accepted irrationality of sports fandom and flirts with psychosis. Just one Google search unearths all those nasty isms and phobias that help shape the image of these players, for better or worse — mostly worse.

A lot of people who tuned in to the NBA over the last three seasons wanted that hackneyed drama and controversy that the networks hyped. They wanted to have a seat at the theater in hopes of not missing another sporting zeitgeist like Alex Rodriguez joining the New York Yankees or the New England Patriots’ nearly perfect run in 2007/8 or the existence of Vick or even that of Mario Balotelli.

And goodness, did LeBron deliver for them.

Those who bought tickets to the show want an encore from James, or are at least willing to try out the understudies like Howard or Anthony. This is the stage that sports have always performed on, from Jack Johnson and Babe Ruth to the Williams’ sisters and Brett Favre.

So who’s next? It doesn’t matter to those who need a new bad guy, just as long as there is one.

For the rest of us, we’ll just keep watching the games themselves, thank you very much.

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