Monday, April 24, 2006

The Politics of Pity


Note: This is the first in an occassional series dedicated to countering some of the more outlandish claims made by the writers of espn.com, cnnsi.com, or whatever random sports website I happen to be reading at the time.

In his espn.com column entitled “What Would You Do?” Jason Whitlock displays the type of cynicism and pessimism that one would expect from an unabashed critic of professional sports, not a writer has devoted his professional life to writing about the very athletes and games Whitlock so freely disparages throughout his article. One would think that as a professional sports writer, Whitlock would believe that the contests he makes his living writing about are played by professionals striving to play their best, not athletes going through the motions because they’ll be receiving a check regardless of the outcome. Nevertheless, Whitlock’s cynicism is on display throughout his rambling, unfocused, defense of the greed, selfishness, and misbehavior associated with many of today’s professional athletes.
Whitlock’s primary assertion is that faced with the same set of circumstances, situations, and decisions as professional athletes, we would more often than not find ourselves acting in the same questionable manner that we are often quick to criticize. His case study for his column is none other than Philadelphia 76ers Allen Iverson and Chris Webber, who recently showed up late and did not play in the Sixers final home game of the season, ironically dubbed Fan Appreciation Night. After failing to arrive at the arena until minutes before the game, both Iverson and Webber did not play or even sit on the Sixers bench during the game. Afterwards, the star duo drew severe criticism from both general manager Billy King and coach Maurice Cheeks, who called their actions “unacceptable” and said “it makes me look like I’m not in control.” The duo was fined an undisclosed amount by the team in the days after the game. Rather than express anger at the fact that any organization’s two star athletes would fail to report on time for a game, especially a game dubbed Fan Appreciation Night, Whitlock says that the millions on dollars both stars have made playing basketball serve to eliminate any sense of duty Webber and Iverson might have to their organization or fans. After detailing the struggles Iverson faced growing up and the millions that were awarded to him when he entered the NBA at the tender age of 21, he asks “After all that, would you really give a flying flip about Fan Appreciation Night?”
Personally, I believe I would give a “flying flip” about Fan Appreciation Night. In fact, I’d give a whole lot more than that. I’d be sure to remind myself that the only reason I’m able to drive my $300,000 Bentley to and from my million dollar Main Line mansion while nattily attired in over $50,000 in jewelry is that the very fans who will pack the Wachovia Center on Fan Appreciation Night are willing to pay the exorbitant cost to see me play a game. I’d remind myself that the auto mechanic sitting in the 11th row just shelled out a week’s worth of salary so he could bring his family of four to see me play. I’d remind myself that I’m being paid more than 35 times the President of the United States to play a game that is a recreational activity for millions of others. And I’d remind myself of how hard the greatest basketball player ever, Michael Jordan, continued to play long after he had made his millions and won his rings.
Whitlock’s claim that millionaire athletes with guaranteed contracts are devoid of reasons to feel loyalty to either their organization or fans is repudiated by the actions of countless other professional athletes. When once asked why he continues to play harder than any other player on the court, game in and game out, despite already being considered one of the best players to ever play in the NBA, Jordan famously replied that every game, there might be one fan in the stands who will never get to see him play again. And he wants that fan to be able to say he saw Michael Jordan at his absolute best. How does Whitlock’s argument account for the actions of Michael Jordan? Or Ronnie Lott, who, rather than be taken out an NFL game because of a broken finger, chose to have the top half of his pinkie amputated so he wouldn’t miss the following series? Or the hundreds of other professional athletes who have come from troubled backgrounds to superstardom in their respective sport, yet continue to give their absolute best night in and night out? Whitlock says that rather than blame Webber and Iverson for their immature behavior, we should blame the NBA, who “just like all of the professional sports leagues, has failed to adjust its rules to compensate for what guaranteed contracts and guaranteed millions have done to pro athletes.”
Out of curiosity, I’m wondering just what action Whitlock would like the see the NBA take to “compensate for what…guaranteed millions have done to pro athletes.” Forgive me for not shedding a tear or holding a telethon for these poor millionaires. Perhaps the reason Whitlock fails to suggest any actions the NBA could take to curtail what he deems to be a significant problem for the league is that he knows how ridiculous it would seem to propose that the National Basketball Association, which has already given its players life-long financial security and a full 60% of all league revenues, owes anything more to the young men they make instant millionaires every year.
It’s difficult to propose any type of solution to the “problem” Whitlock identifies because I simply refuse to believe his ill-conceived notion that “owners, coaches, and executives” are to blame for the selfish and greedy behavior of many of today’s superstar athletes. In contrast to Whitlock’s assertion that Iverson and Webber cannot be blamed and should not be punished for their actions, I feel that the fines levied by the Sixers against both players recently are more than justified. A suspension of the players would only serve to hurt other members of the team as well as Sixers fans. Severe fines, however, seem to be an ideal punishment for Iverson and Webber. For if, as Whitlock claims, money has served to make these players as irresponsible, self-centered, and ultimately blameless as he claims, surely depriving both Iverson and Webber of a portion of their hard-earned cash could have only positive consequences for both players and the organization.

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