Game five of the NBA Finals is here, and, with everything on the line, hope springs eternal for Cleveland. It has to.
In the same way that Grimm’s Fairy Tales endlessly recycles a few well-worn plots, like “princess is rescued,” or, “sly mammal murders old lady,” professional sports is more often than not an accumulation of tropes — “the aging star bids farewell,” or “the Four Horsemen crush the opposing team.”
For Cleveland in 2016, there’s no narrative more potent, none more laden with probable psychic harm, than “prodigal son returns home to end his people’s suffering.”
Ask any Cavaliers fan — too much rides on an improbable comeback victory this year, in a city that has painfully, tantalizingly gone without a professional sports championship since 1964.
Cleveland’s 147-season-long championship drought would not nearly be so resonant without its backdrop — the “Rust Belt,” where the factories are all closed, where unemployment is rampant, where grimy birds whistle John Mellencamp songs from the treetops.
Adjectives like “gritty” and “tough” invariably crop up in any column about Cleveland sports, often beside a brutal accounting of every bobbled championship bid in Browns and Indians history.
That a humble, blue-collar city like Cleveland is an eternally cursed sports nether-realm is too unfair for any well-meaning person to accept, and thus gives rise to an irresistible angle — that what this ice-bowl, lunch-pail city needs is an NBA title, delivered by a native son.
This is a crowd-pleasing narrative. What it elides is less pleasant. If sports is, after all, an arena in which violent competition is synthesized into something beautiful, cooperative, and mostly bloodless, then it can serve just as easily as a passion play, in which the anxieties and uncertainties of real life can be assuaged merely by playing the game.
The reduction of Cleveland and the Rust Belt to a hoary sports cliché converts the pain of life there in 2016 into something airy and metaphysical, like in one of those portentous NFL Films specials — not something urgent, something that we can actually address through politics.
Just as sports has its fairy tales, so too does it have horror stories.
The Destruction of Cleveland
If Cleveland needs a championship to, in some small way, heal, what broke Cleveland in the first place?
The truth is this: Cleveland, and many American cities like it, has been ravaged, ransacked, and sucked dry by four decades of neoliberal experimentation.
This economic devastation did not come out of the sky, or materialize out of thin air, but was a robbery committed by culprits — culprits who continue to dominate our lives, in industries such as professional sports.
The ultimate aim — a massive transfer of wealth from bottom to top and from the public sector to the private — has been wildly successful.
The byproduct has been the staggering impoverishment of Americans in places like Cleveland, a reversal in quality of life that, at best, will merely humiliate you, but which can extend to the point of physical impairment and death.
If this sounds hyperbolic, consider how Cleveland has fared since capital’s counteroffensive in the late seventies.
Indeed, one of the opening shots was fired there. In 1978, following the relocation of tax-base businesses and manufacturers from Cleveland and a ballooning deficit, bankers threatened the city with default, demanding the privatization of public utilities as payment. The effort was heroically resisted by then-mayor Dennis Kucinich, then the youngest big-city mayor in America.
For his efforts preventing the sale of the city’s electric utility Muny Light, Kucinich won the permanent scorn of capital, and was booted from office following the municipal default. He also faced an assassination plot from the Cleveland mafia, angry at being squeezed out of the city labor rackets.
If the story of Muny Light is notable today, it is as a rare exception: the ongoing privatization of Ohio’s prison system is case in point. This devastating trend of industrial flight, privatization, and speculation is the story of the early twenty-first century.
The results are indisputable. Since 2000, the median income in Ohio has dropped $9,363, a 16-point slide. As the Akron Beacon-Journal reports, the devastation wrought by Wall Street greed in 2008 had the power to actually reshape the entire town of Montpelier, Ohio:
Art Goodside told the reporter that he was just shy of his 30th anniversary at the nearby Fleetwood travel trailer factory in 2009 when the Great Recession brought the plant to its knees. The company filed for bankruptcy, and hundreds of employees, among them Goodside, lost their jobs.
Goodside, 57, is representative of an Ohio workforce reeling from a recession that began in 2001, never recovered, then plunged over the edge in 2008-9. The Fleetwood closing contributed to a downward spiral in Williams County, which experienced the largest drop in median household income of any Ohio county since 2000 — 27 percent, or $15,000.
Left unsaid is what future a fifty-seven year-old man has to look forward to, laid off after nearly three decades at the same job.
In the same period, current Ohio Governor John Kasich was earning a six-figure salary with Wall Street fraudsters Lehman Brothers. In 2011, as governor, he would go on to lead a failed effort to strip public-sector employees of their right to strike.
While redevelopment has since restored the luster of Cleveland’s business center, as journalist Gregory L. Moore notes, “it is not enough to be satisfied with making downtown look good with shining sports venues or a new hotel.”
The shooting of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann, and the incomprehensible decision by prosecutors to argue against a criminal indictment, shows the depth to which this fatal inequality and structural racism runs.
The inability to fund paint removal programs has resulted in a lead-poisoning epidemic at least twice as severe as that in Flint, Michigan — this at a time when the Cleveland Browns successfully extorted the city for $30 million in taxpayer funding for stadium upgrades.
As local sportswriter Greg Swartz notes, as of 2014, 54 percent of Cleveland’s children live in poverty — a rate second only to that of Detroit.
This poverty has cascading effects, as children suffer from homelessness, food insecurity, chronic health problems, and, ultimately, impaired development during the formative years of their lives. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports:
Researchers at Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child have found that this ‘toxic stress’ can actually change the architecture of a child’s brain from a very early age and impair the development of neural connections, especially in the areas of the brain dedicated to higher-order skills.
“Poverty,” notes pediatrician Andrew Garner, “is economic violence.”
In Search of Alternatives
It is not more private enterprise that will mitigate this disaster, no matter what Reason says. You need look no further for proof of this in Cleveland than to an oily arch-capitalist like Cavs owner Dan Gilbert.
Gilbert is best known for “The Letter” — a truly deranged Comic Sans missive he dashed off upon LeBron James’s exit to South Beach, and which reads like something Glenn Close would nail to a dead rabbit in “Fatal Attraction.”
While “The Letter” decries James’s “heartless and callous action,” it is Gilbert’s own private wealth accumulation that truly wounded Cleveland’s fan base.
Beyond the indignity of making his team play in a facility named “Quicken Loans Arena,” Gilbert’s lending empire stands accused of systematically defrauding the government of federally-backed mortgages reimbursements, falsifying loan documentation, scaring the shit out of old people, scamming customers with grotesque, tiered interest rates, refusing to pay their employees overtime, and destroying property values in any neighborhoods where their shady mortgage practices resulted in foreclosure.
In a more direct bid to suck money out of the communities he claims to love, Gilbert is now building a casino in downtown Cleveland.
LeBron’s “as told to” essay announcing his return to the Cavaliers recognized, in muted terms, that more was necessary:
What’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio…I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up.
Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.
Realizing this dream, as James knows, will require more than what can be mustered on the court. The sad fact is, the game does not love the fans back. If a team owner like Art Modell decides he can raise his net worth 1 percent by uprooting the Browns and moving to Baltimore, he’ll do it.
Dislocation is the cost of business in America today. More than a championship, what Cleveland’s workers need is a new way of doing business.