What you should be mad about now
July, 9, 2013
By Henry Abbott
Noah Graham/Getty Images
Free agency distasteful? Dwight Howard disrespected? Tales from emails.
Below is some of the back-and-forth from my inbox today, starting with a reader named Josh, a professor from Florida, who mentioned that free agency made him cynical. It's something I've heard many times, but I was curious why. He was kind enough to explain:
I thought a lot about why it was making me cynical. My initial consideration was to go for the "making sausage" sort of cliche, but that's not what repels me about it. It's a problem of narrative.
We're both men interested in stories, obviously. If sports weren't, fundamentally, about stories, then the box-score would suffice. The draft often has, for cultural reasons, Horatio Alger narrative. The athletes highlighted are often the ones who have overcome the most adversity. The regular season has the drama and pacing of a military campaign with little battles allowing the insertion of all sorts of stories e.g. Tim Duncan's last stand, the soap opera that was the Lakers, the Shakespearean history play that is King James.
I guess my issue is that the free agency phase not only highlights the monetized, corporate nature of sports as an industry, which is not its best side, certainly, but the narrative arc often edges towards Wall Street with the reader either tacitly or otherwise asked to root for Gordon Gekko. We're told that "Greed is Good" on the athlete's part.
The focus is on what someone deserves; for a time, the more archetypal, heroic narratives of the season, with the focus on culturally positive values of teamwork and sacrifice, aren't at the forefront, and those stories are what drive sports.
I get what you're saying, but would add one wrinkle. I see sports history as being roughly like music history, where there's a big industry -- filled with empowered backroom-dealing old white millionaires and billionaires -- built on the brilliance and hard work of some true innovators, many of whom are young and black.
This is all changing, and fast.
But basically, I'd caution against the notion that most days it's not about the money. The collective bargaining agreement makes it so that those times when it's not about the money are always about the money for the owners, who have negotiated themselves all kinds of sophisticated everyday advantages. Those days when "nobody worries about the money" are the days when owners are getting away with paying the best players in the world far less than they're worth. Asking players, or musicians, to ignore greed is to indulge the greed of the cottage industry, including owners, gathered to exploit them.
All those guys who invented rock and roll, lacked leverage to demand a good deal from a label, and died broke. ... A shameful and exploitative chapter in U.S. history, made all the worse when white guys like Elvis and the Stones made mints for the labels by basically (by their own admission) mimicking those pioneers, but in the color of skin audiences found more appealing.
NBA players have come a long way from there, and indeed by 2013 many are overpaid. Owners don't all have it easy; in recent years many have lost money.
But the best players remain underpaid. Free agency is the only real force tugging the hoops business away from its tendency to exploit players. This is the one way the players say "enough already," and the free market comes to bear, a little. It's also the antidote to owners who have set up shoddy organizations -- we all have the ability to go work somewhere else if the boss is an incompetent jerk. The power of employees to walk right out that door is, by and large, a force for good. And this is when that happens in the NBA, even if most players are too classy, or too aware of how small the league is, to walk with a line like "I'll never play for that jerk again."
Even if it results in some bad deals, I like that free agency keeps players from falling too far behind in the never-ending battle with owners for power and cash.
Later I had this exchange with a TrueHoop reader and Wizards season ticket holder who prefers to remain anonymous.
You've done an amazing job defending LeBron against asinine haters for nearly a decade. And you look incredibly prescient now that he's won a couple championships. Could you please address the slant in the media coverage on Dwight? He has been ridiculed for playing at an All-NBA First Team level despite coming off back surgery -- and coming back early, to boot! The ridicule doesn't make any sense. Switch his name with someone else's -- let's say 1998 David Robinson -- and he'd be getting SI Covers on team-first attitude and heroism. What's with all the hate? Please help steer the conversation back to reality! The internet-age media hate is ruining our appreciation of an all-time great basketball player! (Again.)
Great question, and generally it makes me mad how we bruise and devour today's stars. They're probably the best players ever! Let's celebrate that!
With LeBron, the more I talked to those in the know, and the more on-court evidence from his play, the clearer it was, even back then, that he was productive and professional in a way that had few precedents. By the best objective measures he has been Jordanesque almost his entire career and the off-the-court story did nothing to counter that.
Meanwhile, the main public storyline about him was that he was profoundly flawed. So it became easy to say "wait a second." You don't have to be a LeBron-lover to get that. Basically every objective person had the same take, but the rhetoric was all out of whack.
With Dwight ... both signals are mixed. Off the court, he has few real gung-ho supporters. He has been adamant about many things, until he has abandoned them for other things. He came in spitting Bible verses, now he's in the off-court rumor mill as much as anybody. He has wrong-footed two potentially good teams by saying he was into one thing (playing for Stan Van Gundy, winning titles as a Laker), and then deciding he wasn't.
I really believe there are lots of right ways to do things. You can take this path, or that one. But it's hard to climb a mountain trying one path and then quickly backtracking to another. You have to spend years on some path. He has changed paths again and again, bailing on essentially every long-term plan he has ever signed up for.
None of it makes him a terrible guy. But it does make his word suspect and his likely future behavior unknowable.
In essence, with LeBron, the track record was there to say: The history predicts amazing stuff.
With Dwight the history predicts: Something between MVP and disaster, and nothing would surprise.
And on the court, Dwight has well-appreciated qualities. He has rightly been celebrated as the NBA's best defender most of his career, and I wholly believe in his post game, unlike many.
And that's more or less how he's described. They generally say he's the best center in the game and he generally has been. Even though objectively, he's ... where, right now? Somewhere in the top 10?
So this case is just messier than the LeBron one. Dwight's appreciated at a high level and plays at a high level. He is accused of having flaws, not all of which, but at least some of which appear to be real. Doesn't trigger my dogma in the same way.