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The Tale of the Uncancellable Superstar

When the NBA Pits Morality Against Victory

by Max Miller

Staff Writer


Every few years, discussion surrounding the idea of “separating the art from the artist” gains popularity. Normally, these dialogues are prompted by some sort of musician’s controversy and culminate in a polarized audience, ultimately (in some cases) having permanent effects on the musician’s success, playability, or at least reputation. Nobody wants to hear any R. Kelly, not because his music is bad (it’s unfortunately very good), but because he has committed absolutely awful acts and is a terrible human.

It would be easy to compare the fields of music and sports. Both industries’ top performers are placed on a strange pedestal. But, there are a few core differences between the two industries that particularly illustrate how society treats athletes.

Illustration by Emerald Golbaum, Contributor

With an artist, one can simply listen to other music. But, if one subscribes to the notion that a given sport is important, it is impossible to avoid whoever the beholder views as a transgressor. (Of course, the outcomes of adults playing a kid’s game are not important in the grand scheme of things if one does not make the active decision to care.) Let’s say you have decided to follow the NBA. Even if you choose to watch a team full of saints, you are also bound to watch your share of “sinners,” so to speak. If I did not want to listen to R. Kelly, for example, I could simply listen to Taylor Swift. But, in sports, if I do not want to watch Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving play basketball, I would have to abstain from watching any Dallas Mavericks games, including those that my favorite team plays against them. This is unsustainable and, frankly, impossible, given how many players have committed morally reprehensible acts.

Because of this inevitable interaction, many frequently call for the suspension or expulsion of players to be enacted by the NBA itself. This is where morality, skill, and marketing comes into play.

The NBA is a product. Its success hinges on TV deals, jersey sales, and the marketing of its stars. It exists to make money, whether the viewer likes it or not, and thus the NBA’s front office will make whatever decision it deems to be the most beneficial financially. This is not particularly hard to grasp; corporations almost always make the most profitable decision. (The NBA is not a corporation but, as Marquette University law professor Nadelle Grossman writes, effectively acts like one.) But, most corporations do not have the NBA’s unique relationship to their employees. Each player is lauded as an “ambassador of the league,” in one form or another. The outward appearance of the NBA focuses on its players.

The crux of the issue is skill, or at least marketability. In a way, players are able to play themselves into a position where they are allowed to do bad things by being, well, really fucking good at basketball. Take the case of Meyers Leonard and Kyrie Irving.

Meyers Leonard was a backup center on the Miami Heat. He is 7’0” with a 87 inch wingspan and can shoot the three at a success rate above 40%, the standard for excellent three point shooters. It is worth mentioning that this is a valuable skill set in the NBA; teams value big men that can shoot because defenders must stay glued to them instead of being able to leave them to help on other players driving to the basket. When a big man can shoot, it opens up the lane for more ball-dominant players to drive. Meyers Leonard fit this profile perfectly, also providing serviceable enough rim protection to be a productive role player for the Heat. That is, until March 9, 2021, when he called someone a “fucking kike bitch” while streaming Call of Duty on Twitch, kike being a deeply offensive slur for Jewish people. Because of this, within a few days, the Miami Heat announced that he would be “away from the team indefinitely.” Leonard only came back on February 22nd of this year on a ten-day contract with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Kyrie Irving, on the other hand, is one of the NBA’s biggest stars. He is a household name, and has been since he was drafted to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011. He is easily a top-25 player in the league, wowing audiences with fancy dribbling moves and difficult shot-making. Irving is widely considered the best dribbler of all time. In October 2022, Irving posted a link to “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America,” a movie that denies the Holocaust, includes quotes from Adolf Hitler, says that Jewish people worship Satan, and claims that Jews controlled the slave trade and control the media. Irving was suspended by the Brooklyn Nets, his team at the time, for two weeks. The suspension came after he was asked at a press conference whether he had “any antisemitic beliefs,” to which he responded, “I cannot be antisemitic if I know where I come from.”

The primary difference between the two players? Kyrie Irving is a huge part of the financial success of the NBA. Kids wear his shoes and look up to his ball-handling ability. Meyers Leonard is an easily replaceable role player.

This is not to say that one of these punishments is expressly right and the other is expressly wrong. This is simply to note that the NBA does not truly care about these issues, but rather how these issues affect their bottom line in terms of PR. Kyrie’s beneficial marketing outweighs his negative; Leonard’s does not.

Society seems to have a tendency of divorcing players’ characters from their athletic bodies. At the end of the day, one’s ability to aid or thwart the simple act of an orange ball going through a basket is more important to NBA teams’ front offices than how good of a human one is (as long as you aren’t actively taking away from locker room culture). Sports fans and media talk about basketball players by their dimensions and physical abilities. This is the shameful nature of athletics. In order to win in an athletic event, front offices must prioritize physical abilities. I would like to think I’m a fun guy who would be a nice hang in an NBA locker room. I can guarantee you that if any NBA team played me rotational minutes, they would lose every game. All that said, it is upsetting to the extent of which players are discussed. The NBA media does not discuss players as people almost at all. It is also important to acknowledge the problematic racial undertones of the separation of athletes’ body and personhood, as 71.8% of the NBA is Black as compared to over 80% of sports media being white.

This is the upsetting nature of the conflict. Teams want to win, especially given its monetary incentive. In a gross, twisted, extremely uncomfortable way, front offices seem to view each player as worth something monetary. If the positives of them contributing to winning outweigh the PR negatives, teams will take that chance. If they don’t, they won’t.

These aspects of the NBA can be easily compared to the music industry. No matter how controversial or problematic, if somebody is selling records and thus pulling in money, major music labels will not drop them. But on a social level, when an artist becomes known as reprehensible, it is almost impossible to interact with their music without weighing moral consequences. This is largely due to the prominence of voice.

Basketball is a team sport, meaning that one can interact with basketball in a non-individual way that is impossible with music. When we listen to music, we connect with the person who wrote the song, often hearing a singer’s voice. It is much more attached to the individual. With basketball, however, one does not see the individual as much as they see the team. Even though Kyrie Irving helps the Mavericks win, he is not the Mavericks. Thus, one can easily consume Mavericks games without deeply thinking about the morality of watching Kyrie Irving play basketball.

This entire article is to say that we do not treat basketball players like regular people. Athletes are treated like gods that can do no wrong when they are playing well and monsters when they are playing poorly. Admittedly, I am occasionally guilty of losing sight of athletes’ personhood; I have many a time been angry at various Philadelphia 76ers players for not performing well (particularly Mike Scott and DeAndre Jordan). Many, including me, at times, talk about athletes as though they are emotionless. But, I argue, this is intrinsic to sports media’s structure. Viewers are supposed to see players this way.

So, is there any way to change this dynamic? Or is this framework so baked into sports that it is virtually impossible to alter? Frankly, I am unsure whether there is an answer. Nonetheless, on an individual level, we must be cognizant of how we interact with athletes, especially in the midst of controversy. I implore the basketball fan to not lose sight of their morals in an attempt to justify wrongdoing. Try not to fall into the trap of putting morally reprehensible people on pedestals. And do not forgive players for horrible acts simply on the grounds that they are 6’7” and play lockdown defense.

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