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How Much Is Too Much?

This will take a while to get around to basketball matters.  Hold'll come around.

I got a break today and turned on CNN to check out the news.  I tuned in just in time to see the landing of American Airlines Flight 1586 at LAX.  The Boeing 737, carrying 135 people, had blown a tire on take-off then circled the airport for a couple hours to burn off fuel before attempting an emergency landing.  This gave television crews plenty of time to cluster around the runway, giving us the live shots of the plane's descent.  Fortunately the landing was textbook perfect and nobody was harmed.

As the plane was making its final approach and the outcome was (literally) up in the air I couldn't help but wonder what we were doing watching this.  However you slice it, the interest in the story was 135 people in peril...the possibility of seeing a catastrophic event before our eyes.  Even as I watched part of me was asking whether this moment should be reserved for the people on that plane alone, perhaps their families or loved ones as well.  Those people had a deep, life-changing stake in what went on in those moments.  The rest of us...what were we doing there?  Why should we be allowed to see?  What did that moment mean to us?

We've all been shown through countless Dr. Phils and Real Worlds (and their ilk) that the lives of others can be entertaining, especially when those lives include pain, catastrophe, or pathos.  When people suffer, we consume that suffering as a form of entertainment.  This movement has overwhelmed the news industry, especially on television.  Mind you, I am not saying that a potential plane crash is not newsworthy.  It clearly is.  CNN probably had a responsibility to show that landing.  But it is newsworthy in large part because the definition of "news" has come to include anything unusual, violent, hurtful, titillating, or embarrassing whether or not we really have a stake in the story.  It used to be in every small town across the country there were two or three gossips who would make sure that everybody knew the latest dirt on everybody else whether it concerned them or not.  No need anymore.  Television has become Gladys Kravitz for a nation. 

I wonder how I would feel were I on such a plane.  I wonder if I would appreciate my existence (and its possible end) being summed up as a ratings boost for a network and Coliseum-like entertainment for a nation...the fiery film to be replayed constantly until people got so tired of it they ceased watching, so used to it that it didn't affect them anymore.  I know what such an event would mean to my son who would grow up without his dad.  I know what it would mean to my wife, my parents, maybe even my friends and colleagues.  I'm not sure I, or they, would appreciate how that event was used by others who watched, to whom it didn't mean much beyond a vicarious feeling of loss and a "Did you see?!?" story.  Ratings aside, journalism aside, the fact that I, too, watched it aside, I'm not sure those cameras should have been there.

Circling back to our usual topic, there's a parallel here with our basketball stars, I think.  They get paid enormous sums.  Part of that payment comes with the understanding that their lives will be less private than those of ordinary citizens.  I'm not one to baby celebrities of any sort.  They earn money precisely because they are a public sensation.  It's neither logical nor reasonable to take that money and then say, "I hate it when all these people look at me!"  Nevertheless there are certain subjects, certain moments, certain relationships that weigh so much more to the celebrities in question than they do to the general public that I think they approach the airplane analogy.  In other words, despite what's considered "newsworthy" in this day and age I suspect there are some things we just shouldn't know about our players.

I tend to get itchy when a player's family relationships start making news.  This is doubly so when you start talking about children or about divorces.  If a player has a drug habit that he's honestly trying to kick I believe his trip to rehab and recovery should be his and his family's alone without the rest of us butting in.  That's a man's life we're talking about.  It's more important than basketball and certainly more serious than our need to know about it.  To a lesser degree I think a player should be granted a certain amount of leeway in his personal time and habits.  A night at a strip club--even though that's not how I'd spend my time--shouldn't necessarily be reported.  In isolation that's not a weighty matter compared to the others, but when you consider the need for all of us to be human beings with peculiarities and leisure time it actually means a lot.  The meat of the matter isn't strip clubs versus not, it's basic humanity, privacy, and the need to feel like you can do some things without carrying the weight of a city on your shoulders in every moment.   Strip clubs stray towards the fringes but you could also ask whether we need to know what kind of car Jerryd Bayless bought with his first NBA check, what kind of barbeque sauce Brandon Roy shops for, and whether Greg Oden wears boxers or briefs.

There's a line out there somewhere.  I'm not sure I trust that modern journalistic practices have drawn it in the best place.  To me the examples at the beginning of the last paragraph stand pretty clearly beyond it.  It gets fuzzier towards the end of the paragraph.  Somewhere in the middle there comes the point where I'm ready to say, "Enough!"  I don't want to know.  I don't need to know.  Can't we just let this rest with the player and his family...the people to whom it means the most?  There's something in that sentiment that makes me think I wouldn't be a very good journalist.  There's also something inside me insisting that having that sentiment is intrinsic to being a decent human being.  Given the choice (if there is one) I hope I'd value the latter more than the former. 

I think maybe next time I'll just turn the television off and pray the plane gets there safely.  I think I'll also be fairly content thinking Brandon Roy is the best thing since sliced bread unless he does something damaging enough to the community to move me from that stance.  Maybe it's not so good to have that bubble burst by too much familiarity.

Where is this line for you?  What kind of things do you want to know about Blazer players and what things do you think are unnecessary?  Should the cameras be at the runway (so to speak) if one of these guys could be undergoing a personal or family tragedy?  At what point should the coverage stop?

I am curious to hear your thoughts.

--Dave (