The great contradiction of sports fans is how much we know about athletes, and how little we know about athletes. We know their colleges, we know their stats, we may or may not know where they live in the offseason and what they drive, but that’s it. We talk about them all the time, but really know almost nothing of their interior lives. Can you imagine ten people who you know well enough that you’d recognize them, know where they went to college, their last five moves, and recognize one of their parents, but not know what books they’d read, how they feel about politics, what they do for fun?
Maybe they have no interior lives, we all know their lives are dominated by their jobs and have been since an extremely young age. Out of the three professions that we talk about all the time as a society, but really know nothing about I’ve spent a lot of time with just one: politicians. All are driven; some are good people; some are bad people; most are a mix of the two; and there’s a third group that's essentially a hardened core of ambition, surrounded by an empty shell. I can’t imagine athletes and movie stars are any different. Why would they be?
It is probably good for the athletes in some ways, who wants any more of your life on display than you need. I’m sure the NBA itself and the teams keep a tight rein on information. The Orlando Magic appear to have changed one of Gortat’s own languages into a made up construct of a totalitarian state to avoid even implying that he was picking a side in a conflict almost no American is even aware of. If they are that afraid of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, just imagine how terrified they are of any thug culture coming through, or even a general questioning of authority. One doesn’t need to know the motivating parts of David Stern’s interior life to see he didn’t like Rasheed Wallace. It also helps the biggest athletes maintain their brands. Who wants to buy shirts and shoes from a compulsive gambler? Why would they discuss politics if, as Air Jordan put it, “Republicans buy shoes too”.
But it hurts a lot of them as well. The media filled in Russell Westbrook’s entire personality based on some decisions about whether Durant was open enough to pass to. They’re doing the same with LeBron and his fourth quarters. Selfishness -- real selfishness -- and passing are two completely different things, except in our flattened view of sports stars. What Russell has gone through though is slight compared with the ones with real difficulties and troubles, something that the league or the team couldn’t just spin away. If you know nothing about someone for any length of time and then they make a mistake (like Delonte West’s arrest, Ron Artest’s fight, or Starbury’s uStream) the mistake quickly fills in the blank space.
But even the worst of criminals is not a criminal all the time. A good defense attorney at sentencing fills in that blank space, fights back against the definition of criminal, shows they too have a family, but a court gives a better hearing than the media’s given any of these athletes. The mistake defined them because they were otherwise blank slates. If all you know about him's that he once applied for a job at Circuit City and later fought a fan at the Palace, you get a completely different view of Ron Artest than you do if you know more about him, about the work he’s done, and what he’s trying to do. I’m sure it's the same for Delonte West, but we’ll probably never know because that’s what we’ve been told about any of his 27 years off the court. Marbury could end up going either way with what we end up learning about him.
Like much of the NBA and pro sports, the silence probably doesn’t make a huge impact on most athletes, helps those who need it the least, the superstar brands, and ends up simply exploiting the small remainder. For good or ill, as a fan I’d like to know more... and I don't mean accidental penis Tweets. Some real stories would give us something more to root for than geographic proximity.