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Let’s say you and a lady friend go out to dinner. The restaurant’s aesthetics are extravagant, the food is luscious, and the convivial atmosphere adheres to your expectation. This place is so on point, it seems like the music played is a soundtrack of your favorite songs. The perfect night, right? Well, as you’re getting ready to pay the bill, you overhear your waiter carp to his fellow staff, “Ugh my last table were a bunch of (racial slur)! They left me ten bucks, on a hundred dollar bill!”
How do you react? You are probably taken back and after .025 seconds of letting the insensitivity of the comment fester, you are visually appalled. All the sudden the restaurant does not seem so vibrant, your food isn’t as palatable, and for some inexplicable reason “Holla Back Girl” by Gwen Stefani is blaring across the restaurant. You and your date are frantically searching for an exit as you pay your bill. In the car, simultaneously you both think aloud, “What was the deal with that waiter?” After an awkward silence, she says, “Whatever. That was so rude. We’re not going back there,” and you swiftly reply, “Agreed, it’s 2011. Totally uncalled for.” That is all it takes in the service industry. A moment of disgust or comment causing disdain, and customers move on to the array of competitors available.
When broaching any sports topic, I always preach to my friends how professional athletes live in alternate universe. This place is almost like a black hole where all citizens make a kajillion dollars, while working 8 months a year. In our colloquial conversations, I immediately identify this world because, let’s face it, the occupation “professional athlete” is abnormal by nature.
After establishing that context, I cannot tell you how many times have I have heard an athlete stoically utter the words, “It’s a business.” In this case, the term business is vague. The NBA or NFL isn’t your local house of pizza. After all, we’ve already established athletes operate in a society totally different than the one I live in. Anyway, usually the phrase revolves around a player being traded from a team, or signed to a long term deal. The upshot of an athlete illuminating the monetary agenda of sports is that they must behave in a way conducive to a business environment. In other words, an athlete stating “It’s a business,” means they are cognizant that while on the floor, they are representing a brand. Above everything else, a professional sporting event is a service industry just like the restaurant we visited at the beginning of this column.
Athletes give the consumer the service of entertainment. Furthermore, the events that transpire over the course of any game determine the value of the said service. These events go beyond the elementary result of game. For instance if the Patriots take the field on a Sunday in October, compete with vigor, and win a game by 27 points – the product is excellent. On the other hand, if Tom Brady is caught on camera yelling a racial slur at an official or another player the product is harmed. This detrimental display by Brady should be rectified using a disciplinary fine. Ultimately, Brady ruined the dinner—er game.
This was the case last week when Lakers star Kobe Bryant was shown on camera angrily yelling “F-ing (Gay Slur)” at referee Bennie Adams. NBA commissioner David Stern took action immediately, fining Bryant $100,000. The event spawned debate across the country: should what happens on the court (or field) of a professional game stay between the lines and not be brought into the public? Like I said before, athletes don’t work a 9-5 job. Their attitude is palpable. Players participate in arduous games and their whimsical re-actions to moments in the heat of battle are omnipresent. Meanwhile, we’re going to their place of work to watch them compete. Is what transpires on a field, court, or rink sacrosanct?
The short-answer is no. As previously mentioned, players concede this is a business. Conversations held in the locker room are usually kept in-house. There is a code and understanding in place, and that’s fine. I’ve worked in different avenues of the business world, and while not facing a client things are said and kept between those who participated in the meeting. On the contrary, as soon as a client is involved – in any form of communication – dialect is more formal and the brand is protected at all times through professional demeanor.
Most fans become infatuated with sports between the age of 10 and 13. The fascination wanes once fans grow older and realize there is 99.9999% chance they’ll never score a touchdown in a Super Bowl, pitch in a World Series, or hit the winning shot of a NBA Finals game. When you are eleven years old though? Anything is possible. Your credulous attitude supersedes everything. These guys are your idols. You want to play, talk, walk, dress just like your favorite player.
In 1993 Charles Barkley announced, “I am not a role model,” in a notorious Nike commercial. Barkley went on to proclaim he is paid to “wreak havoc on a basketball court” and “just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” The ad was lauded for being frank. The spot defined accountability both in between the lines of a game, and at home. However, what Chuck failed to realize is even through an athlete’s vices and transgressions – on and off the court – they are helping raise children.
What Kobe Bryant should care about today is not the $100,000 he was fined, instead how he looked like an ass. He offended a segment of our population. Somewhere a parent is telling their kids, “Look, Kobe is a GREAT player. He has a renowned work ethic, but not everyone is perfect. No matter how many jump shots Kobe makes, he still has another ‘game’ he should work on – his humanity and sportsmanship.”
The same thing could be said about Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett who allegedly called Pistons forward Charlie Villanueva a “cancer patient.” Obviously there is no evidence to corroborate Villanueva’s accusation. In fact, KG claims he called Villanueva a “cancerous player to his team,” which is completely different. But if there was a parent with a child in the front row of the Palace that night, and Villanueva is telling the truth then Garnett’s deleterious remarks (whether caught on camera or not) would be damming enough to the NBA brand. A brand that – since the officiating gambling scandal and Pacers/Pistons/Detroit patrons triple threat match a couple of years ago – is extremely volatile. So yeah, you better believe David Stern is cringing as this lesson is being taught at the expense of one of his players and needs to act accordingly when dealing with offensive remarks.
We’re not paying to see a Kobe Bryant reading at the Westboro Baptist Church. We’re paying to see if our favorite team can win a championship. The ugly truth is players do things or say stuff that is nauseating at times, and it is impossible to govern everything said on the field of play. The aforementioned Barkley commercial set valid boundaries between athletes and parenting. However for better or for worse, as we move into the 24-hour-news-cycle-camera-phone-Twitter-based world where everything is so ubiquitous, the message seems more antiquated. That $100,000? That’s nothing. Bryant is pulling in $24,806,250 this season. If he cares about less than half a percent of his salary, he has a whole other set of issues. But that conversation between father and son? That, as they say in hackneyed Visa commercials, is priceless.
Follow me on Twitter: @KeyserSozeSays