LeBron James, the best basketball player in the world, is in the process of deciding which team he’ll play for next. The most likely outcomes are that he will re-sign with the Miami Heat or return to his almost-hometown Cleveland (he’s from Akron), a city he enraged in the summer of 2010 by announcing his departure via a hugely hyped TV special on ESPN. At the moment, Cleveland fans, a rather tortured bunch, are freaking out about the prospects of James’s return by passing along all sorts of crazy online rumors.
Deadspin has a good rundown. Did you know, for instance, that newly built pages on LeBron James’s website have the color scheme of — wait for it — the Cleveland Cavaliers?
(Except maybe not.)
Or that there was a moving truck in front of James’s house?
Or that some billboard thing means he’s returning to Cleveland? Or that … you get the point.
The rumors are swirling furiously, and it’s so very easy to laugh at the grasping desperation on display here — “Did you hear that LeBron was seen at a Starbucks with my cousin Mike’s wife’s brother-in-law, who works for the Cavs, and later that night at a bar Mike looked so happy he was almost dancing, and he bought everyone shots, and when people asked why he just kept winking?”
But given what we know about how rumors spread, this is the most human thing possible. When we’re faced with an information vacuum over something that matters a lot to us, there’s tremendous psychological incentive to relieve some of the cognitive pressure of uncertainty by passing around information, even if it’s useless.
How many people really know where James is most likely to land at the moment? A dozen? Fifty? That leaves millions of invested fans, in Cleveland and elsewhere, obsessing over a question they lack the tools to answer. My guess is that the vast majority of the people circulating these silly rumors would, if you asked them to think about it, admit that they didn’t actually put much stock in them. It just feels better to have something to grab onto rather than to be battered by uncertainty.
It reminds me of the days following Columbine. My high school, like most high schools, was a hysterical rumor circus in the days following the attack, and to make things worse, some idiot called in a bomb threat.
So there was a lot of: Had I heard that some shady-looking kid had dropped a suspicious package — not saying it’s a bomb, not saying it’s not a bomb — in the middle of the soccer field? I hadn’t heard, in fact, and even though I had no way of knowing whether there was any veracity to the rumor (guess whether there was), I passed along the information to my friends nonetheless. It sure beat sitting in class having no idea what the hell was going on.
Obviously, “The Decision, Part II” is a lot less important than a high-school massacre. But some of the same rumor-breeding mechanisms are in place. So while it’s okay to laugh at the internet craziness currently on display, we should also acknowledge that we have been Cleveland fans in the past, and will be again at some high-stress, low-information juncture in the future.