Adam Silver and the economics of morality

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So Adam Silver unloaded the banhammer on Donald Sterling yesterday — preventing the Don from ever getting within two zipcodes of Staples Center or any NBA entity. You probably heard that already.

It was the right call, and, really, it was the only call. Anything less than that would’ve resulted in outright mutiny. Hell, the money already ran scared for the hills.

And this is what makes the decision to dump Donald by the side of the road seem so disingenuous. This was no heroic claiming of moral high ground. This was a decision to save face, a swift rip of the band-aid to let the wound heal in the open.

Mr. Silver, and, particularly, his predecessor of 30 years, Mr. Stern, had numerous chances to oust Sterling in the past for his litany of racist, sexist, bigoted offenses that did real, actual harm to real, actual people.

But it was only when faced with financial peril — when doing business with Donald Sterling was no longer good for doing business — that the NBA chose to sever ties. Donald Sterling’s evil actions and disgusting demeanor (not to mention his asleep-at-the-wheel and offensively penny-pinching ownership) wasn’t enough of a debit to his character until the Association faced financial and public humiliation.

If the NBA really, truly wanted to take a stand against racism within its ranks – on both a personal and institutional level – then the NBA would do better to hire more minorities beyond the workers in the fields on the court. Front offices, broadcast booths, sidelines, league offices and marketing departments are chock full of ivory skin and ivory tower mentality, despite the cherry-picked figures that caused The University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport to award an A+ for racial diversity hiring. (Head coaches? Players? That’s what you’re rolling with as outstanding examples of “diversity” in hiring?)

If Adam Silver truly wants his league to serve as a shining beacon of promoting racial equality, there would be no dress code decreed by the white ruling body enforcing its predominantly black “talent” to dress in semi-formal attire when sitting out full games. There would be no age limit set by the white ruling body deciding when its predominantly black workforce is “mature” enough to start earning grown man paychecks.

And, if the NBA really, really wants to be subversive and forward-thinking in their morality, they would strike the title of “Owner” from their lexicon. I don’t think you need me to tell you why.

Make no mistake, Adam Silver made the right call, and sending a gross dinosaur of a human being to the NBA tar pits is a welcome first step. But it was a convenient first step – one that came adorned with all the trappings of a warm-and-fuzzy feel-good sleeper hit. There were website takeovers and Staples Center billboards (probably not designed by one of the 1-in-20 ‘creative industry‘ workers that’s non-white) and a sweet commercial tailor-made to tug at your heartstrings (the odds of an African-American actually playing any part in the creation of that commercial, by the way? One-in-100.) but to truly turn this into any kind of moral crusade will require more than just savvy marketing and swift justice.

The spotlight shined brightly on Mr. Silver, and boy did he deliver. But, as Donald Sterling knows as well as anyone, character is defined by what we all do with the lights off, long before we’re saddled with the burden of cleaning up the messes of our making.

 

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Growing up with, rather than growing out of, sports

I’m 28 and the tectonics of my sports fandom have shifted irreversibly. Like the gradual reversion of a scar sinking into the fiber of one’s skin – in which eventually it becomes seamless and blended and meshed, as it becomes less ‘abscess’ and more ‘recess’, I find myself more rationally studying the sports landscape.

Part of this is due to immersion, as a writer, as well as a fan, I experience dozens (if not hundreds) of sports videos, clips, articles, columns, games and discussions per day, and I am forced to extract what’s important, relevant and profound. Part of this is due to exhaustion, as that very same drowning in sports content numbs and wears at the flesh between my earlobes and elsewhere. Part of this is due to dependency, as the longer I’ve liked and followed sports, the more of my ‘fix’ must be plundered to ascertain similarly heightened levels of intrigue.

Still, one very real, very gradual, phenomenon locked my attention and continues to stare it down: I’m now the same age as an athlete in their “Athletic Prime.” I’m no longer looking up to athletes as heroes or role models, I’m no longer college-aged, hoping to go pro, and I’m no longer a wide-eyed rookie hoping to grow into my tremendous talent or spread my wings into superstardom. No, I’m now the same age as “the guy.” Your franchise cornerstone.

I was sitting on the couch with the lady last week as she followed the oblong pigskin with me – her staring not so much at the TV, but rather through it, eyes half-glazed over in boredom/exhaustion/confusion – and that thought crept back into my head: “This is just a game.”

Then Marshawn Lynch broke through with the “run of the century”, a 67-yard scamper through which he broke (at my count) nine tackles, including a fanatical stiff-arm where he chucked a New Orleans defender halfway to Tacoma. It brought shivers to my shoulders and a silent scream to my throat. My emotions were, as follows, “HOLY SH*T! … I gotta text my friends … Where’s the video! … Amazing! … Why did the Bills trade him? … I am so mad … Tell me he turns into an all-time great … Where was this in Buffalo? … Sonuvab***h, Seattle’s not just going to cover, but win outright … What an upset!” This all went through my head in the span of 60 seconds. When I was a college senior, Marshawn Lynch was a senior, too … in High School.

I then realized, I am wildly engaged with, and three tax-brackets beneath, athletes who may be younger than I. But, yet, they appear to exist outside the constructs of age. I don’t feel older than them, but when empirically remember that I am, it bewilders me. I think, “How did they get to do what they do?”

Athletes talk endlessly about “doing what it takes to win” and “putting in the effort” and you hear about work-ethic, dedication and “leaving it all out there on the field.” And I realize that was never me. And that these folks who are, by and large, physical specimens that could outrun and outhit a Toyota Prius (quite easily, I assume), are also geared specifically to do just that, and have trained their brains to do so from a tender age. They’re young, they’re powerful and they’re committed. Say what you will about some of the legal transgressions or smack-talk, but these are some incredible human beings.

LeBron James this past summer caught a bit of flack for throwing Cleveland under the bus on Live Television. But he also donated millions to charity that same night, and consulted with financial planners, agents, coaches, players, family, friends, supporters, branding experts, CEOs and other professional athletes to make what he could out of a threshold situation. It was calculated, cunning and remarkably mature, especially for a 25 year-old. My 25th birthday, I got thrown out of a bar for vomiting in public, throwing a potted plant, picking a fight with a 60 year-old man and dropping a few drunken n-bombs. What’s the opposite of “doing what it takes to win?” Yeah, I did that.

So when I think of these young pups playing the game, giving their all on the field, and I refer to one of them as a “headcase” or “immature”, I say it with an off-hand, tongue-in-cheek reverence. Does it take a somewhat crazy individual to administer as much physical pain on another human being as possible for 60 continuous minutes once a week? Absolutely. And it probably predisposes them to locker-room outbursts, DUI arrests and the like. You gotta cope with it somehow. But immature?

Well, these cats are younger than I, making the same mistakes I did, and finding out the hard way there’s folks who want to take advantage of you and probably will. But, in every concrete sense of the word, these same people did it all the right way. For their every success can be measured empirically in stats and rings, wins and losses. Real life outside the lines ain’t that black-and-white. And they’re getting paid seven (sometimes eight!) figures over the course of a mere 5-to-10 years to measure their strength in that fashion. I respect that.

So what happens when you turn 28? If you’ve aged properly, you’d think what happens is your admiration’s been de-mythologized. Athletes turn from heroes in a Greek sense, to heroes in an Algerian (not the country, the author) sense: It is their routine, their workman-like approach to the grandiose and mystical that’s admired, rather than the grandiosity and mystical itself.

In other words, you see the men behind the gods. You stop believing in miracles, and yet you start believing there’s men and women out there who can run through the five boroughs or New York City faster than any regular human can drive through them during a regular workweek, because you see it on the 6pm Sportscenter.

Less imagination, more incredulity. Welcome to the age of coming of age.

North American Field Guide to Sports Villains

What makes a great sports villain?

In sports, anti-heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Whether it’s an athlete who purposely devises a divisive image for public consumption or it’s somebody who achieves greatness despite the public’s overwhelming favoritism toward another involved party, sports villains are everywhere.

Who are the athletes that you love to hate?

Here, we break down the types and give a few examples in this week’s North American Field Guide of Sports Villains.

The Rogue Agent – The Rogue Agent is one of the hardest villains to spot in the wild. The Rogue Agent does an expert job of achieving success using morally and legally questionable methods to attain this level of excellence. Generally, a reputation as a Rogue Agent can only be acquired through many years of torturing the competition. (Ex: Bonds, Barry; Clemens, Roger; Belicheck, Bill)

The Let Downer – This species of sports villain doesn’t identify itself right away. This is somebody who, despite the public’s overwhelming support toward wanting to see success by some other athlete / team, wins the event or championship. Nobody remembers them down the line, but they’ll always be trivia fodder when asked “You know who finished second, can you tell me who finished first?” (Ex: Da’Tara; 2006 Italy World Cup team; Beem, Rich; 2004 Detroit Pistons)

The Spoiled Brat – This is almost always the highest paid guy in any sport, but can also be somebody who whines too much to get what he wants. He or she can usually be seen calling out teammates, forcing a trade or not living up to lofty expectations. It can also be a mouthy owner, one who fills the front page with demeaning quotes. You’ll identify with this list right away. (Ex: Rodriguez, Alex; Owens, Terrell; Bryant, Kobe; Jones, Jerry; Cuban, Mark; BCS, The)

The Golden Boy – They’re young. They’re rich. They’re attractive. They’re famous. They have the job you want and the notoriety to match. You’ve searched through all their crevices of their soul and can’t seem to find any flaws. In short, their perfection annoys you. These are the easiest villains to spot in the wild, just check the tabloids. Kill! Kill! Kill! (Ex: Brady, Tom; Romo, Tony; Jeter, Derek; Beckham, David)

The Quiet Assassin – This group consists of athletes who are so scary good, that they are actually quite boring. The Quiet Assassin always shows up on time and gives 150% and they always come through in the clutch. However, they’ve won so often that you’re sick of seeing them win. There’s nothing inherently unlikable about this group, but you just wish you could see someone else’s name engraved on the trophy. (Ex: Federer, Roger; San Antonio Spurs; New York Yankees; Detroit Red Wings; Jordan, Michael; New England Patriots)

The Incompetent Owner – All the money in the world can’t buy you intuition. These owners have been throwing money (and their mouths) at problems for years, and yet, simply cannot bring their franchises out of foreclosure. (Ex: Sterling, Donald; Angelos, Peter; Wilson, Ralph)

The Bad Apple – This is one straight up bad dude, despite loads of talent. This is the athlete that ruins their lives due to moral flexibility and/or uncontrollable vices. They can be addicts or “clubhouse cancers.” They are not to be confused with the Spoiled Brat. (Ex: Vick, Michael; Stewart, Tony; Woods, Tiger; Bradley, Milton)

The “Stuff White People Like” – Deemed successful after extended dominance of a given sport, yet amasses a disproportionately rich, white fanbase loaded with subtle prejudices. The ‘play the game the right away’ and are ‘fundamentally sound.’ (Ex: Blue Devils, Duke; Celtics, Boston; Tebow, Tim; Fighting Irish, Notre Dame)

The rust belt ship-jumper – This is a special category all its own, created especially for the folks who’ve bolted from Cleveland, Ohio and angered a nation in the process. (James, LeBron; Modell, Art)

Please continue to refer to this guide as necessary. Now that you’ve been educated, get out your binoculars and start discovering.

Paul Pierce is the Derek Jeter of basketball

Last night, with 13.3 seconds remaining in an early-season mail-biter against Milwaukee, a bit of history happened in Boston.

Paul Pierce strode to the free-throw line and sunk two freebies, notching his 20,000th and 20,001st NBA points, joining Bird and John Havlicek as the only life-long Celtics to reach the milestone. This begs an important question: How good is Paul Pierce?

Pierce never led the league in anything worthwhile, never scored more than 26 points per-game. Never filled out a stat sheet. Pierce ranks 36th all-time in NBA scoring  and doesn’t crack the Top 50 in steals, rebounds or assists.  The man suffers from the curse of being ‘very good’ and ‘consistent.’ If he were flashier, he’d be Tracy McGrady. More freakishly athletic, he’d be Vince Carter.

But Pierce holds the ace in the hole. He’s been remarkably durable and consistent. He’s a career 22-6-3 guy who’s scored more than 19 PPG every season this millennium, and plays solid, if unspectacular, defense. He’s had one significant injury his entire career and suited up in green-and-white for every game he’s played as a pro. He’s won in the playoffs when surrounded by top-notch talent, liberated from carrying the team on his back, unless he had to.

Clutch. Consistently above-average. Good ‘D’. Wins when surrounded by stars. Played his entire career with the most storied franchise in his sport, and could one day end up leading the franchise in several categories.

Paul Pierce is Derek Jeter minus the media slobber and the fawning women. You may not have realized yet, but you will when you see him down the road in Springfield.