Yesterday the Portland Trail Blazers parted ways with long-time Head Coach Terry Stotts. As soon as the news became official, and in a few cases even before, rumors about potential replacements circled. As the night wore on, two names rose to the top of the rumor list: Jason Kidd and Chauncey Billups.
Upon further investigation, it turned out that both men had serious issues in their past. Kidd was convicted of a domestic violence charge. Billups settled out of court after he and teammates were accused of sexual assault. Neither event was recent; both hold gravity.
Today I’m not speaking for Blazer’s Edge, SBNation, the staff that serve them, or anybody but myself. This is just me: my thoughts, my opinion, my life.
No matter who supports them, and no matter what basketball qualities they possess, I cannot advocate for either Kidd or Billups as the Trail Blazers’ next Head Coach.
I grew up seeing the effect of abuse in my own family. I don’t intend to go into details; it is not my story to tell. My mother was married another time, before she met and married my dad. Both she and her children—my older siblings—experienced abuse in that relationship.
I never experienced abuse myself, directly. My home life was safe. I saw its ripple effects throughout my family, though. Over the years some things were harder than they should be and others never went away. The legacy of abuse doesn’t disappear when the events are over, when matters are “settled” legally, or otherwise. Even when the rest of the world considers the matter resolved, the people who experienced it still pay.
I am not in any way saying that people who have survived abuse or assault are doomed, nor bearers of misery to others. Life is, and can be, good. It certainly has been for me. It was for my mom and sisters too. Still, those events become part of your identity. They don’t disappear with the passage of time. The floor has a crack. When you carpet it and walk over it, the carpet develops a groove in that spot too. You understand it, sometimes work around it, and move on. At least that’s been my experience. (As always, listening to those who speak out directly about these things is the way to go.)
Today we hear that the Blazers are considering coaching candidates who carry these issues with them. The matter seems complex, on the surface. “Isn’t this about coaching basketball?” Or, “Isn’t this about what they’re really guilty of and how much?” Or, “Isn’t this about redemption and forgiveness?” Or, “Isn’t this about vetting everybody and asking who can hold up to that scrutiny?” Or, “Isn’t this about developing an unbreakable standard we can hold people to?”
I don’t know. Maybe it’s about all those things? I acknowledge their existence, at least. But I also notice how quickly we take the deeply-embedded personal experiences and abstract them into controllable, codified, faceless presumptions.
For me, this isn’t about world-spanning abstracts. It’s about people and the things that affect them.
I can’t shake the fact that basketball is a voluntarily-chosen form of communal entertainment, something we can walk away from or relegate to lesser importance. Suffering abuse is involuntary, often inescapable. The effects run deeper than two hours in front of a TV on a Wednesday night.
I do believe that people are entitled to pursue growth and redemption in their lives. Without that, all of us would be doomed by—forever identified with—our first mistakes. I believe our lives are defined by more than just our worst moments.
That doesn’t mean we get to escape our worst moments entirely. This is especially true when that escape would dismiss those who are suffering from them and can’t escape their effects.
In every arc of redemption, some paths perpetuate the suffering we’ve caused rather than alleviating it. Paths that are prominent and public bring up echoes of pain not just in the people we’ve personally harmed, but people who have experienced like harm in their own lives. If we see an offender working in Aisle 5 of the store, we go to Aisle 6 or to a different shop. When we see an offender in front of a microphone, lecturing about ethics and tacitly ignoring the offense, that causes pain.
When that happens, I’m not sure the arc is redemptive anymore, even if it’s beneficial to the individual. It comes perilously close to repeating the offense in miniature: making those around us pay as we advance our own person and power.
Sportswriters are seldom concerned with this kind of subtlety. We revere sports figures because of their talent, skill, and the entertainment they provide us. When they fall or fail, we will absolutely report the misdeeds of our heroes, even speak out against them. It’s not only true, it makes us feel good, just like the sport did. Either way, the story secretly centers on us.
We love redemption stories for the same reason. They make us feel good. And so, after enough time passes to assuage our misgivings, we will interview or quote our fallen heroes again, eager to redeem them to their former perch. Touching stories sweep across airwaves and pages. To bring up the past in the face of this effervescent charity would feel gauche, unforgiving. Rejoice, everyone! It’s all good now!
Each step of the process—initial awe, critique/castigation, and redemption—is geared to make us feel good.
But what about those who still don’t feel good? What about those who are still sliding coffee tables over the grooves in the carpet? They don’t get interviews. Their voices aren’t heard. They’re not part of the process. Through each step—particularly the redemptive one—they get sent the tacit message that their words, identities, and suffering don’t belong, because they don’t make us feel good. The story-arc parade marches onward loudly, leaving them behind, alone and largely silent.
We do have fine writers drawing attention to issues of abuse and assault nowadays, far more than we ever have before. It’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the years of tradition up to this point. When we speak of these issues in a sports environment, we need to be aware that we’re speaking into a system that’s 2%, “Let’s listen,” and 98%, “Let’s just get on with it and feel better!”
Until that changes, I don’t see a way to bring complexity or subtlety into this kind of situation without greasing the wheels of that machine.
I also don’t see any way that machine doesn’t invalidate—in fact re-offend against—hundreds of thousands of people who have been hurt in ways that they didn’t deserve, couldn’t avoid, and can’t just lay aside to “make us feel good”.
The issue is huge. It will not be solved by rejecting one or two head coaching candidates. We need to re-examine, and probably re-build, the whole system. But that choice isn’t before us, or the Trail Blazers franchise today. The coaching choice is.
For me, I say, no. No matter what the basketball acumen of the candidates, no matter how earnest and real their reformation process may be, I cannot look at them in this public position of leadership—representing a franchise, in authority over other members of it—and say that I’m ok with that. Even if I could get there personally, and even if I agree that the identity of these men is not defined wholly by their worst moments, I still think of those who don’t have a choice, for whom that identity change is not so easy. I think of people who neither can, nor should, erase their own experience and suffering so they can watch basketball.
The whole world is geared towards making those who have suffered abuse pay so the rest of us can enjoy our evenings. I can’t go there. I think this time, we need to pay for the sake of them. That’s all of us, including the candidates with these histories.
I do not want to deprive Blazers fans of a good coach. I do not begrudge these men a chance at making a career out of the sport they have loved and contributed to. But in this public leadership position, in this place and time, in this way that will re-echo with pain for so many, I say no.
Let this redemption arc play out as all of us care for the voiceless, in a way that doesn’t paper over pain, but helps undo it.
When she was alive, my mom followed the team. Were she here, I’d want her to be able to look across the court and know, without having to guess, that she belonged there with the rest of us. I’d want her to be able to watch games just like we do, without compromising or wincing.
I hope everybody in this situation comes out well: the team, the community, Mr. Kidd and Mr. Billups. But if I have to choose who I’m going to tend to first, I’m going to choose the people who were hurt, who seldom get mentioned, and who never get prioritized. That’s my ethic. I have it not just for the sake of, but because of, my mom and all the people like her who have suffered over the years, largely in silence.
No matter how much Damian Lillard and Neil Olshey like them, and no matter how sterling of a character these candidates now have, I hope the Blazers find another coach. If the Blazers decision-makers say they know these candidates as fine men and promising coaches, I have no reason to disbelieve them. Those aren’t the only voices in the conversation, though. And in this case, they may not be the most important.