Why Fans Can Never Empathize With NBA Players, Even If They Are the Ones Locked Out
A few weeks ago the NBC sitcom, Community, ran an episode that featured the character Jeff Winger, played by Joel McHale, tossing a die up in the air to decide which character would answer the door for the pizza delivery guy. The die spun through the air out of the hole of the show’s current time line to reveal all the possible places where the dice might land, with each hole being another timeline, or dimension. In one timeline, the results were disastrous: characters lost arms, Ahbed and Troy’s apartment was set on fire, and a demonic gnome oversaw all of it. In another timeline, which happened to be the one that the audience was left to believe concluded the show, the results were much more pastoral. Everyone was complimentary to one another, anxiety levels lowered, and everyone smiled so much that the only thing left to do was have a dance party. Jeff Winger, the egomaniac of Greendale Community College, was the one who got the pizza in this time line, and it’s also important to mention that the rolling of the die was his idea in the first place, an idea that because of the die’s six-sided nature would render Jeff, seated in the seventh seat, from ever having to get the pizza.
Now, I’m not sure exactly why, but this episode of Community, for me, tells the story of the NBA Lockout. Maybe it’s that David Stern and Billy Hunter remind me of demonic troll dolls, or maybe it’s that both the players and the owners, due to their egos, are not willing to concede an ounce of pride, so rather than walking out of the apartment, down the steps, and opening the front door, a dice is tossed in the air and the entire NBA universe becomes a party to chance, only in the NBA dice roll there aren’t six possible timelines coexisting–spiraling off to their own reck and ruin–but two: one with a season and one without a season.
And while the possibilities for this season seemingly consist of a coin flip between the seventy-two game proposal that players are currently weighing in on or no games at all, the focus of a fan’s blame is spiraling out of control. First, one could blame the owners; after all, they chose to expand their League’s number of teams, they chose to pay players outrageous amounts of money, they created a League where only a handful of teams can win a championship, and they locked out the players. Then, there is David Stern’s fear mongering, his Judge Danforth like press conferences where he might as well be saying, “you’re either with this court or against it [no pun intended].” Or, if you believe Stern’s words, then blame the “greedy” agents. Or, in the spirit of Stern’s fallacious arguments and hyperbolic language, one could also blame talking heads, such as HBO’s Bryant Gumbel, who claims that the owners are acting as if they were plantation owners punishing their slaves.
And it is the false analogy that Gumbel’s making about professional athletes as slaves that is the crux, no matter how long the Lockout lasts or the fact that the owners initiated it, as to why the players cannot win the public opinion battle over the long haul, and the reason is as simple and ugly as the emotions of jealousy and envy (as well as the fact that there other parts of American society that would more aptly identify with nineteenth century slaves than professional athletes do).
To many working class families, athletes are individuals blessed at birth with talents that make their road in life a much easier journey than the rest of us. At some point in their lives, most people come across someone with talent on a sports field that made them say, I can’t do that and never will, and at some point, coaches saw it too and they were cut. Those individuals who were cut, whether it was from a travel soccer team or a varsity basketball team, then entered the competitive fields of academics and the arts, but it’s much harder to get cut in those two fields–everything is seemingly more subjective and national policies like No Child Left Behind suggest that cuts in education are not possible, that everyone is good enough, but anyone with a rejection letter from a prestigious university knows that’s not true. And most people would be okay with that, except that there are individuals who, based on their innate abilities to run faster and jump higher, unlock doors to academic institutions, and the irony that someone can get into an academic institution by way of athletic accomplishment leaves much of society’s members unwilling to bestow the characteristics of hard work and sacrifice on athletes, especially when those abilities not only sustain athletes but bring them fame and fortune as well.
So instead, they are men blessed with the fountain of youth that escaped most of the population, for their work commute takes them back to the fields and the courts that everyone else last traversed as young boys and young girls. In our minds, they are forever toiling at play, getting paid to never grow old, and, therefore, we can never side with them in an argument that will still leave them with a “job” that will pay them millions of dollars. And because they have something that we can never have nor get back–a game that matters more than anything–we have a hard time feeling sorry for them when it comes to labor disputes.
The owners, however, are another matter, not that we ever pity them either, but owners are richer versions of what all of us have already become: adults. They have jobs that look, sound, and feel like real jobs–make that boring jobs–having already made their money elsewhere, in anonymity, before deciding to spend it frivolously on free agents and arenas. In other words, they made their money working rather than playing, and owning an NBA team is a hobby for them, not to mention that video games and fantasy sports leagues so often put the fan not in the place of the athlete but in the place of the coach or owner. We are not jealous of owners; we can understand how they came to be, because, right or wrong, we believe they are self-made; but we are envious of the players because their roll of the dice is something foreign (or lost) to just about all of us.
Pay for play? Most of us can’t even fathom saying no to that, because when our parents told us we could have anything and everything–our genetics told us we couldn’t.
(DISCLAIMER: The child-adult analogy made in this article is not intended to insult NBA players and say that they are childish or immature, but rather I meant to imply that all of us who are no longer children would prefer to be so because we believe that such a miracle would deliver us from our adult responsibilities.)
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