In no other profession can someone go up to you in the middle of your job and yell profanities at you, hurling insults about your family, with the sole purpose of demoralizing you and embarrassing you in an attempt to hinder your ability to perform your duties. In no other profession can someone bring up moments in your past to personally humiliate you to try and provoke you into losing your temper. But that’s what our athletes, and NBA players specifically, must deal with every game of every season for their whole career.
In other sports like baseball or football, with so much gear and helmets on, and spectators relatively far away from the action, the insults are a bit less transparent and easier to deflect or ignore. But in basketball, with fans 4 feet away from the court and sometimes quiet crowds for much of the game, allowing all to be heard, the players are pretty unprotected from the obscenities of the ill-hearted fans. And yet, they are subjected to this with little pity from anybody else, and left to absorb the abuse with a smile and goodwill, lest they be cast as players with “bad attitude” or a “temper.”
Which begs the simple question, do we expect too much from our athletes, and NBA players specifically?
In the face of this abuse that they must endure, including racial taunts or insults about personal misdeeds or old fashioned cursing, we expect our NBA players to sit there quietly and not react. We expect them to be patient and thoughtful, and willing to sacrifice their emotional well being for the betterment of the sport. Any time a Ron Artest brawl incident occurs, it is all over the media and hailed as another example of a spoiled athlete crazed and unable to control himself, not content with the millions of dollars he is earning and instead intent on taking his anger out on fans.
But what have these players really signed up for? Should we be putting so much responsibility on them?
Our expectation levels for these athletes goes much further than the simple standards we have of them in response to the heckling. That part of it is only a fraction of the lofty bar we hold our athletes to.
We require our athletes to be good role models to children everywhere who look up to them, we want them to be good workers in the community, we want them to show good judgment in public, we want them to take a stand on political issues and use their power to make change in the world, we want them to be ambassadors of the game, to be professional gentlemen, to be perfect in every way although we the fans aren’t even close to it, in addition to the aforementioned ability to patiently deflect all the verbal abuse.
But has anyone ever bothered to ask why this is so?
Basketball players are in the NBA for one simple reason and one reason only: because they are skilled in a sport. They have the physical and mental tools that enable them to effectively maneuver this game, which nonsensically involves putting a ball through a hoop (if you think about it, a pretty dumb objective) and dribble some arbitrary amount before taking some arbitrary number of steps before shooting or passing. They are very good at adhering to these rules created by some gentleman a hundred and something years ago to condition his athletes and create a useful “athletic distraction” to keep them in good shape. They are good at this very extremely specific task that, besides serving to entertain us greatly, really has no meaningful use in the real world. They aren’t curing cancer, or ending world hunger, or furthering society, or creating everlasting harmony – they’re putting a ball through a damned hoop and trying to stop the other team from doing the same. But they’re really good at it, and so they’re in the NBA.
But their ability to play this game really doesn’t have any bearing on the type of person they are or the type of human being they are. They are good at a sport and nothing (necessarily) more. We have no right to expect them to be something that we create in our minds to be the traits of an ideal athlete. They are people just like we are – they deserve to be able to act in their lives and dictate the things they do without the shackles of societal expectations lingering over their every move. They aren’t politicians voted in by us to lead our nation, they’re basketball players. If they want to focus on basketball and do only the things they love and focus just on earning money without worrying about politics, they have that right. If they want to go out to the clubs and have a good time spending their well earned money, they should have that right too. If they want to have affairs with other women, they should be able to without being condemned for it, just as many Americans do (although that does make them a pretty horrible person). And why should they have to stand there quietly as fans heckle them over and over again?
What we seem to always forget in our image of the perfect basketball player or athlete is the conditions in which many of these athletes grow up. Oftentimes, basketball players have grown up in a rough neighborhood in the inner cities, struggling throughout their childhoods with few role models to look up to. They scrap and claw their way out of their bad situations with an undying desire to succeed, and must suffer through countless trials and tribulations to reach the pros – with undoubtedly many of their peers failing along the way. They’ve succeeded because they’ve focused their energies on one singular goal – being the best basketball player they can be. When they get to the league, they are 20 something year olds with little education and a sudden influx of money and power and exposure. They’ve gone from rags to riches and have all the freedom in the world. They’re really basically kids at that stage in their life – not well informed enough to be a leader in society and not well polished enough to help us make decisions in our own life. Nor are they especially patient, or smart, or well informed, or morally just.
But we still expect these athletes to come through for us in everyday situations and demonstrate more restraint than we could ever endure. Charles Barkley was once criticized heavily for not wanting to be a role model for children. Michael Jordan was criticized for not declaring his political stance and instead noting how Republicans and Democrats alike buy his shoes. LeBron James was criticized heavily for not signing a petition from a teammate regarding a particularly touchy political matter. Kobe was killed for his affair. And athletes are criticized all the time for reacting to fan heckling.
And why is this so? Just because these basketball players have lots of exposure and power and fame within our everyday lives as entertainers that help us to get a bit of distraction from the droll lives we endure, we want them to lead us by example. But they really don’t necessarily have the know-how, the ability, or the credentials to have to be burdened with such a responsibility. Why not leave things like that to the people who are well informed on the subject or put in place for those very reasons? Do I really want Kobe Bryant or LeBron James dictating who I vote for in an upcoming election? Do they know more about the subject than a political commentator who has spent a great deal of his education studying it rather than practicing jumpshots in a gym? Am I really going to model my life by what some 20 something year old millionaire professional athlete does? And do I really expect someone whom I’ve yelled at for 2 hours straight to sit there while I make fun of his mother and not get angry at what I’m saying?
Now I’m not saying that basketball players have an automatic license to abuse their powers and go rampant and wild, but we need to stop with the glorified, idealized image of what they are supposed to be. Instead of trying to mold them or criticize them until they feel bad enough to act the way we want them to act, we need to let them be whatever they want to be. If that means not caring about political issues or neglecting to go that extra step to be a role model for children, then that’s what we must deal with as a society. And if that means cursing out fans who get on their nerves, I’m sure we can forgive them. Because it isn’t their fault for choosing to act in that manner. They are merely exercising their rights as an American to lead a life they choose, to pursue the goals they set out for themselves, unabated and unperturbed by the silly constraints that the media bestows upon them.
So for now, instead of placing these expectations on our athletes to behave in a manner most beneficial to us, we need to step back and instead just appreciate the athletes who already do so, without the prodding. We need to treasure our athletes that are the real gentlemen of the game, the real role models, the great political forces who stimulate change, who go outside the realm of comfort for them to use their power and clout for good, and use their sport as a vehicle by which to accomplish more in life. The ones who are good people not because they are famous athletes, but just happen to be both. They are the ones who we can cling on to, the Muhammad Ali’s, the Jackie Robinson’s, the Bill Russell’s, the Hank Aaron’s, the Magic Johnson’s, the Derek Fisher’s who we remember as much for their exploits in their sport as their impact off of it.
They were all great role models, and great people. But they weren’t this way because we told them to be – they were just born with it. So we can keep on trying to mold every player who makes it to the NBA into the model provided by these gentlemen, but we will soon find it utterly futile. They are merely basketball players and nothing more, if they choose to be, and we shouldn’t have any say in the matter. To continue to try and do so is just plain selfish.