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How Ethical Do We Expect Pro Athletes to Be?

The NBA is astir with stories of impropriety. Where’s the line?

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Brooklyn Nets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving and former San Antonio Spurs rookie Josh Primo have overshadowed NBA news headlines this week, Irving amid anti-Semitic references and Primo for allegedly exposing himself to a sports psychologist multiple times.

Normally we stick to Portland Trail Blazers topics in the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag, but one reader is opening up the possibility of broader discussion regarding professional athletes and ethics, so let’s follow.

Dear Dave,

I know this is a hard question but with Kyrie Irving and now Josh Primo having ugly incidents I want to know where you think the line is between supporting and enabling players. Charles Barkley once said that athletes aren’t role models and I believe that’s true to some extent. But where is the line where we say stop? Is there a point where rooting for your team is too much for your morals?


Thanks, Thomas. It’s a good question.

Let’s not just limit this to players, though. Coach Ime Udoka also engaged in improprieties with a staff member when he was leading the Boston Celtics. Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver was suspended for a season for racist and misogynist comments. Financers and managers are not immune, nor should players be singled out specially when discussing ethics in professional sports.

Everyone draws the line differently for themselves. I’m assuming you’re asking me to share my personal line, but I’ll also assume you find that in some way valuable, or potentially standard-setting, just by virtue of you inquiring in a public mailbag. And sure, I’ll share my thoughts. As for the standard, if there’s going to be one, it shouldn’t be mine alone. I am as imperfect and limited in vision as anyone. I can only see what I see. I have grown in a certain culture which leads to particular presumptions which may not fit everyone. My thoughts certainly fall short of being The Standard for all times and places. I offer them as an opening to community discussion through which bigger definitions of truth might be discovered, not as a small, narrow truth which we’re meant to find universal.

So...I was able to codify my standard by watching professional wrestling, of all things. When I was young, I used to watch Portland Wrestling. Like most in my generation, I eventually migrated to the WWF/WWE. I couldn’t see events live, because who could afford cable, let alone pay-per-view? But I’d rent VHS tapes and watch old Wrestlemanias and such.

Later on, when shows became more accessible, I watched through the rise and fall of Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, also known as the “Attitude Era”. It was called that because this is when wrestling grew up, becoming more adult-oriented. We won’t go into particulars, but let’s just say that the shows featured a lot of things that would have had little Hulkamaniacs from back in the day covering their eight-year-old eyes and fervently saying their prayers.

When I was watching it in real-time, I remember being uncomfortable with some of the storylines. I didn’t think about it too much. I just mentally skipped over a bit of awfulness in order to enjoy the good stuff. When, eventually, the awfulness appeared to be overtaking the joy, I simply quit watching.

That was that until a couple years ago, on a whim, I showed Wrestlemania III to my teenage son. The show was, in itself, fairly innocent. Nobody will ever forget Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant. He ate it up! All of a sudden, I had a full-fledged fan on my hands.

When he asked if we could watch more, I realized I needed to take a more careful look at what we were watching. I forbid very few things as a parent, but I like my children to have perspective on the media they consume. When we see something disturbing, we talk about why, who it affects, and what the ramifications might be.

As pay-per-views progressed, my son and I had the chance to discuss quite a bit. By the time we got back to the Attitude Era, he had a pretty good idea what all this was about. He also knew what he wanted to see and what he wanted to fast forward through without question. He actually keeps his hand on the remote if a potentially-iffy match is advertised. He will skip ahead as soon as it’s announced. I don’t have to do a thing.

As we talked about it, we pretty much codified our standard for ethics for consuming “sports entertainment”. It boiled down to these affirmations:

  • If the issue at hand is bigger than the sport...
  • If the subject matter is racist, misogynist, stereotypes people of LGBTQ+ orientation, or makes us feel good because of characteristics we identify with at the expense of another group of people...
  • If we feel like a reasonable person would be really sad, hurt, or disgusted if they were sitting next to us experiencing this...

...then we don’t feel good about consuming it.

Again, we didn’t start with this ethic. We developed it based on our gut, our compassion, our life experience, and the purpose of viewing which is, in the end, entertainment, no more and no less.

I can transfer that same ethic to NBA Basketball pretty easily. The sport is different, as is the level of engagement/entertainment, but the basic principles still hold.

I don’t expect any athletes, coaches, managers, or owners to be perfect. I assume NBA franchises employ all kinds of people, none of whom are flawless, some of whom are demonstrably icky by my standards. So does Walmart, oil companies, Congress, and everyone else.

Because of this, people around the NBA are going to make mistakes. Some of them will be dramatic. If complete moral perfection is our standard for enjoyment, we might as well turn everything off right now. We have to accept some level of imperfection or we can’t interact with any organization, anywhere.

Not all offenses are the same, though. Some invoke cultural issues that are bigger than the sport. Some are flat-out racist, misogynist, and etc. Some would be very hard to explain to a person sitting next to me, why I was still supporting an organization in which this was condoned. There’s a difference between evading taxes and slighting an entire ethnicity...if not in legality, at least in effect on all of us.

When somebody makes a mistake that rises to an actionable level, I expect the league and its franchises to take note and act. I don’t necessarily advocate for a particular consequence. Only they know the practices and precedents that pertain. I don’t feel comfortable insisting that Kyrie Irving get fired or that Josh Primo never get another chance no matter what the circumstances. Sure, I have opinions on that, but I don’t expect the league to act on my opinion.

I do expect them to do something, though. These things must be acknowledged. If they’re not—if no change or awareness comes from these events—then I don’t feel comfortable continuing to support the process. An apology, a suspension, a lifetime ban...I’m fairly agnostic as to the outcome, but it needs to be real and there needs to be something to evoke self-awareness. When harm is caused, we have to step back and admit we’re all just being entertained here, and that our entertainment is not the center of the universe...especially not when it costs other people their dignity, safety, or means of making a living.

If the NBA ever got to the point the WWE did in the 2000’s, where it seemed like nobody cared that the awfulness was overtaking the entertainment, I’d probably do the same thing now I did then: quit watching. I doubt that’ll happen. Most NBA participants are fairly normal—albeit immensely talented and financially-privileged—folks. They’re not likely to upset the apple cart when applesauce is their living. I don’t ever see NBA management jumping with both feet into unethical stances or stories either. At minimum, they’ll make noises about violations not fitting their cultural aims.

I also think there’s room for local fan bases to take a harder line with their own teams. I certainly have. I don’t think my words should determine who is hired or fired in Portland, but not remarking on things that have crossed the line isn’t fair to those who have suffered because of them.

As long as those things remain true—that people have a voice and it appears the powers that be are concerned about propriety and ethics—I think we can live in a world where all of us get to draw the morality line in different places and adjust our consumption of NBA entertainment accordingly.

I think the NBA should make as much noise as is necessary to affirm that using a public microphone to demean groups of people is dangerous and unconscionable. I think the San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics, and Brooklyn Nets should uphold standards of sexual harassment, protecting their employees from misuse of power. I think people who have violated those standards should demonstrate public contrition and be held to a higher standard if and when they re-enter the culture.

I’m not sure we’ll ever come up with a moral code that prevents wrong behavior. We are responsible for how we speak of and deal with such things, though. Insisting upon that is part of the price of watching. Without it, sports is pretty hard to enjoy.

Update: As of Thursday afternoon, the Brooklyn Nets have suspended Kyrie Irving for antisemitic references and failing to disavow them in subsequent press conferences.