Cruising around in the Dave-Mobile this morning I had a chance to take in some sports talk. One of the main topics of the day seems to be how we relate to, judge, and talk about athletes. This has also been a hot topic around Blazer Nation the last few years.
I must confess I've never understood people who think that just because an athlete has a job in the public eye they have free rein to say anything they want about him or her. Yes, a certain amount of scrutiny, criticism, and celebrity go with the job. Athletes do have a responsibility to the public that pays them and being part of the community conversation is part of that responsibility, like it or not. But I've always felt that the conversation should...
A. Actually have something to do with the sport, the reason the athlete is under discussion in the first place.
B. Be held to the same standards of rationality as any public conversation.
People who take the attitude, "I bought a ticket so I can say whatever I want" (or "I've followed them for years so I'm free to make completely unfounded statements") confound me. Just because you bought a car doesn't mean you can drive it however you want. If you buy a ticket to a symphony you can't stand up and yell, "Late entry on measure sixteen, bassoon! And you call that legato? Get a clue!" Sports are a more edgy form of entertainment than those, more on the wild side of civilization, but they're still within the bounds of civilization and the conversation that surrounds them should reflect that. Idiotic comments, speculation, accusations, and generally derogatory speech shouldn't wash just because we're talking about athletics or athletes. They're junk in this venue just like they are in the world of finance or politics. Everybody has an opinion, but it's pretty apparent that some aren't worth the half a millisecond it took to come up with them. I don't envy the athletes who have to hear this stuff every day. In some ways I'd guess it is akin to enduring racism or religious criticism or some of the more serious wrongs in our society. Being very well compensated for doing it probably doesn't make it much easier.
In that sense I completely understand when a college coach or a professional athlete comes out and says, "Hey...back off a little!" We all need to remember these are people, not just numbers and uniforms. It's too easy to forget. And we've seen our fair share of forgetting that in Portland when it comes to the Blazers.
On the other hand we've also seen the flip side of the coin...people who will defend a player no matter what just because he's wearing the home uniform. I must confess that I don't understand this either. If we say athletes are people so have some respect how you criticize them we also must admit that athletes are people and not infallible. They don't belong on a pedestal any more than Paris Hilton does. At times during the last few years I could have sworn that I would scream and break something if I had heard one more person say how Player X was misunderstood and wronged when Player X was clearly doing things that he shouldn't have been. This is made even worse by the fact that as soon as Player X retires or is traded (or sometimes even stops performing well) most of those same people who are defending him will be all over him.
If an athlete does something stupid it's stupid no matter which uniform he wears. I hope hearing guys like Lamarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, and heck, just about everybody we've heard from on the current squad is enough to convince people that you shouldn't have to make excuses for your team or its players. That it's entirely possible for a good team to be populated with decent (not perfect, but normal) guys who have a clue how to conduct themselves. Little arguments and bumps in the road happen in every sports city but whenever you find yourself having to defend your players on a consistent basis it means something is wrong.
Both of these arguments stem from the same thesis, which is that no matter their job, skills, or pay scale athletes are people too and should be treated as such. That's exactly how we should relate to, judge, and talk about them, like human beings. It's really sad that in so many cases we've learned not to.
P.S. Now that I've said that, let me also say that one of the saddest days in sports talk radio was the day that Stephen A. Smith got his own show. Even an hour a day is too much. I understand that he's doing a schtick. That's how he got popular and he's running with it. But his routine is so divorced from anything real or rational that it's actually disturbing. He's not funny. He's not informative. He feels free to throw in any kind of criticism or opinion of any athlete without regard for that athlete's humanity (as we talked about above) and yet seems to demand respect for his own performance and his own opinions. The fact that it's a facade doesn't make it any better. It just shows how people are willing to sell anything out for personal gain and fame. This kind of show is everything that's wrong with talk about athletes and sports and I hope his tenure is very short-lived.