On the surface, it would seem that LeBron James and lasting peace in the Middle East have nothing in common, and I could make that argument myself, but I won’t. Instead, I will show how both are not only linked to one another, but to the celebration over the death of Osama bin Laden.

Since my original posting of Part I of this blog entry, there have been more developments surrounding this event. There have been questions about how bin Laden died, how his body was disposed of, and if he’s even dead. Beyond that, there have been questions of how bin Laden could have remained “hidden” in a million-dollar estate so close to the Pakistani military, how the US was able to get to him and just what the celebrations of his death mean for US and global society. At the same time, the “Arab Spring” in the Middle East is struggling to move forward, with draconian crackdowns in Syria, Bahrain and other countries, while the G8 pledges to support the movement. Israel and Palestine seem to be moving further from a plausible place of negotiation after Netanyahu’s obstinance during his Washington visit last week. All the while, LeBron James and his new team, the Miami Heat, steam-rolled the competition in the Eastern Conference playoffs to reach the NBA Finals for the second time in James’s storied career, where they will face the Dallas Mavericks. A fact that has many in Ohio, especially Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.

So, what does the reaction to the Heat reaching the Finals have to do with the celebrations over the death of bin Laden, and peace in the Middle East? Maybe everything. As I’ve stated numerous times before, our species is a lethally, territorial, xenophobic one. Males from different communities compete over territories, and they will attack each other, lethally if possible, when they have distinct advantages or the costs of not attacking are too high. While it’s obvious what lethal, territorial xenophobia has to do with the death of bin Laden and peace in the Middle East, it might seem less clearly connected to attitudes about LeBron James and the possibility of his winning his first NBA title.

In the eyes of many in and around sports, the city of Cleveland and the state of Ohio, King James committed to the ultimate act of betrayal. He left his home state, where he was the undisputed leader of a contending franchise, and joined a new team. From the perspective of a xenophobic species, he ceased to be a member of a specific “in-group” and became one of the “others”. When LeBron left Cleveland for Miami his actions elicited very primal reactions from those that admired and adored him. For an example, look at the open letter issued by his former boss, Dan Gilbert. Those reactions and feelings haven’t any dissipated over time. Many people in the city of Cleveland, and Cavaliers fans everywhere, genuinely hate LeBron James, and they do so because they feel betrayed and abandoned. What makes it worse is that those fans feel betrayed and abandoned by “one of their own”. To further the insult, he wasn’t a role player who came off the bench, he was the “chosen one”. LeBron James was supposed to not only save the city of Cleveland from decades of disappointment, he was supposed to rule the NBA, and he was going to take the Cavaliers with him. From the perspective of a xenophobic species, the alpha male left his group to side with an enemy, resulting in his former group mates feeling betrayed and abandoned.

Those same feelings are experienced by humans in all cultures, in all contexts, regardless of where they live. When we identify someone as a member of our in-group we empathize with them in a particular, unique way. Conversely, when we identify someone as a member of an out-group, an enemy, we empathize with them little, or not at all. The reaction of Cavaliers fans to LeBron James now that he is a member of an out-group is, at its core, the same base reaction of Israelis to Palestinians, or those celebrators and revelers to the death of Osama bin Laden. To be clear, I am not claiming that the reactions of sports fans are equal to those of members of different cultures in conflict, or people fearing for their lives. I’m suggesting that the behaviors stem from the same adaptations to selective forces that favored individuals who empathized strongly with in-group members and not with members of an out-group. While the stakes are obviously much higher in the cases of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the on-going war with al qaeda, the feelings share the same roots. Sports are simply ritualized forms of combat and competition that allow us to act out deeply ingrained coalitional, competitive and complex behaviors in ways that are, usually, not lethal. Part of the attraction of sport is that it allows us to form in-groups and out-groups in safe, stimulating environments, where we can act out aggression, friendship, and competition. In the cases of anger towards James, celebrations over the death of bin Laden, or the situation in the Middle East, we see all three of those behaviors, and many others, acted out in very different contexts. While those differences are important for the impacts they make on individuals and on society (the departure of James from Cleveland is, obviously, nowhere near as important as a struggle for national and personal survival) it is the similarities in the reactions of the groups that reveal our evolutionary heritage. It is in the similarities in the reactions of these disparate groups that we see how rooted in our evolutionary past our current behaviors are.

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