Monday, March 17, 2014
Questions and Answers
Last week, Grantland.com posted its third installment in a series of videos documenting Steve Nash's recovery from injuries that have derailed his Laker career. They're beautifully shot, remarkably current, and hauntingly honest ... maybe too honest for some.
In the last two videos, Nash has addressed the awkward reality that his contract is an albatross to a sputtering franchise. But one comment in particular from last week's video caught my attention and many others' (6:20 in episode three):
"I'm not going to retire because I want the money. That's honest. We want honest athletes, but at the same time, you're going to have people out there that are like, 'Oh man, he's so greedy.' ... I have to take that last little bit. I'm sorry if that is frustrating to some, but if they were in my shoes, they would do exactly the same thing."
Many times, I read and hear interviews that are eventually judged "controversial" in the news cycle without coming to the same conclusion. But this was different.
The first time I heard Nash admit part of his motivation for returning was to collect all of his salary I stopped the video and replayed that soundbite. For fans long brainwashed by the meaningless platitudes of jock-speak, this was a startling admission that I knew would draw attention. It felt something like a Saturday Night Live parody where a likable famous person plays the opposite role and says something clashingly terrible.
But as I reeled in the comment, I found myself unable to answer one simple question: What exactly is wrong with this answer?
Nash's answer is not only completely logical, it's exactly the kind of honesty we claim to want from our athletes.
The history of bland athlete interviews is now decades old. Anecdotally, Michael Jordan established a capitalist justification for saying little while talking a lot: Republicans buy sneakers, too. If taking a divisive stand meant a significant financial hit, why do it, Jordan reasoned.
But Nash's honesty went a step further and ruffled some feathers because it pulled back the curtain on our sports fantasies. Sure, when enormous contract figures bounce around the sports page like Angry Birds, we can accept it. We see those figures in black and white with such regularity that the pure mercenary nature of the transaction is hidden. But when Nash admits he wants to come back to earn his salary, even if his best effort is limited, it feels different. The sports myths of unchecked competitive fire and child-like passion quickly dissolve. We only see a guy with an opportunity to make a ridiculous amount of money for a year of work that might not be up to what his employer bargained for.
And this brings us to Allen Iverson.
Like Nash, Iverson was an iconic point guard for some good-if-not-great teams in the past two decades. And like Nash, Iverson had his own soundbite kerfluffle, though you probably already know about this one.
In 2002, Iverson answered queries about his practice habits by questioning who really cares what happens outside of games and, in the process, said the word "practice" about 9,608 times. I will admit that discussions of Iverson carry enough baggage to ground a commercial airliner, but in this particular case, the contemporary gripe was that Iverson seemed above the grunt work we assumed was necessary to his success.
Where Nash's sin was admitting he wanted to come back regardless of his peak ability, Iverson was guilty of bringing less than complete enthusiasm to parts of his athlete lifestyle.
Sports are different from most consumer businesses in how fanatically involved the customers become emotionally. When we go to the grocery store, we want quality products and service because we surrender our hard-earned money for them, but we can understand the tedium and wage frustration that come along with some of the associated work.
But this isn't true of sports. Not only do professional athletes make highly public fortunes, they do so in an industry many of us choose as a primary leisure activity.
At some point, sports fans have to grow up. Maybe our athletes lose a little mystique when they get bored with the less interesting parts of their jobs or openly pay attention to maximizing their incomes because that's what the rest of us do.
There's a reason sports are consumed much differently from scripted entertainment. We don't like to DVR games and we love watching them in social situations, both virtual and real. On some level, we must understand that these are humans, wildly talented humans, who sometimes worry about money and sometimes aren't model citizens. No matter how much we fool ourselves, it's their job.
And the games are more interesting for it.