Can Pro Sports Fans Handle The Truth?
“You can’t handle the truth!”
These five words have become five of the most famous in recent cinematic history from the movie A Few Good Men. Perhaps one reason why this phrase has resonated so much for over two decades in our culture is largely due to the fact that so many of us really can’t handle the truth.
We have created insulation from reality in so many instances in our lives because reality is too painful. Some ways in which we do this are explicit and obvious. Others, however, are much more covert. And it’s the more covert ways that scare me the most since we are not even aware of what we are doing.
A simple example is the way we discuss death. So often people refuse to say that someone died. Instead, we use euphemisms like “passed away” or “gone” because to say dead is to acknowledge the true reality and thus the finality of the entire proceeding. The use of such language is perpetuated by it being viewed as “rude” or “disrespectful” to use the word that best describes what has occurred, it this case, death.
There is no perfect segue from something as important as human life to something as trivial as sports, but the idea of not being able to handle the truth, or at least an athlete’s version of it, is something that happens quite frequently to sports fans.
If you consume professional sports media you are intimately familiar with the well-oiled PR machine it has become over the years. Athletes flash a big smile for the camera and talk in clichés. If the athlete is really savvy he might throw in the interviewers name a time or two. It has gotten to the point that watching most televised interviews is an exercise in identifying just how much empty language can be used in the span of 30-60 seconds.
It makes sense that professional sports organizations would want be aware of what their athletes are saying as they have more money invested in players than at any other point in history. Problem is, the spin has reached a point where it insults the collective intelligence of sports fans.
Take San Francisco 49ers’ cornerback Chris Culliver’s ridiculous comments at the Super Bowl media circus this past week.
When asked about gays in the NFL, Culliver replied: “I don’t do the gay guys, man. I don’t do that. Ain’t got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can’t be… in the locker room, nah. You’ve gotta come out 10 years later after that.”
Of course, not long after his remarks went viral as the kids say, he released a statement that read as follows:
“The derogatory comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel. It has taken me seeing them in print to realize that they are hurtful and ugly. Those discriminating feelings are truly not in my heart. Further, I apologize to those who I have hurt and offended, and I pledge to learn and grow from this experience.”
Reading such a statement is the most insulting part of the whole process. Pro sports organizations expect us to believe that the same person is talking in both examples when one is clearly a statement written by someone other that Culliver. Just a quick glance at syntax is enough to know as much.
Of course, largely missed in Culliver’s despicable remarks is the fact that a comedian, Artie Lange, was the one asking the question that led to Culliver’s response. Why comedians and other non-sports related media members are given free reign to cover the Super Bowl is beyond me.
The NFL might wish to do anything to continue to expand its brand, especially during Super Bowl week, but by allowing media members (broadly defined) who have no interest in sports it’s only a matter of time until someone affiliated with a team says something stupid and/or insensitive.
Certain factions of the media deserve some blame, too. I’m not proposing that the media is responsible for the ignorant sentiment that comes out of the mouths of pro athletes like Culliver, but certain members of the media are at events like Super Bowl media week with the sole intent of getting an athlete to say something stupid. Should just one athlete oblige, the organization to which that media member belongs will be the beneficiary of many “impressions” on its website and much public attention.
The previous example is a social one. There are inevitably some folks who would respond to it by saying something like, “I don’t care what athletes do in their free time or what they think, I just care about what they do on the field or court.”
While this view strikes me as remarkably compartmentalized, we can certainly focus the discussion of honesty in the media on items that are just sports related.
For example, Denver Nuggets’ head coach George Karl often gets grilled by fans in the Mile High City for being honest about the expectations he has for his team. This past week Karl acknowledged that the fourth seed in the West is the team’s goal.
“We know that’s probably our goal. I respect San Antonio; the Clippers and Oklahoma City are probably too far away from us.”
He later added: “Realistically, we know 4-5 is a goal. And try to win that first round, gain confidence and keep a young team going in the right direction.”
Many Nuggets’ fans were outraged, and have been in the past by similar comments, claiming that Karl is conceding that his team is not a true championship contender.
Here’s the thing, though: Karl’s right. The Nuggets are not a true contender this season. Moreover, being a fourth or fifth seed is this team’s ceiling. It might not be fun for Nuggets’ fans to hear that, but it doesn’t make Karl’s statements any less true.
Here we have an example, solely sports related, where some fans can’t handle the truth. They would rather have Karl make some kind of speech about how the Nuggets can be the best team in the league when he knows such a statement is not truthful.
At worst, perhaps someone could criticize Karl for setting the expectations low as a mechanism of self-preservation, but that doesn’t change the fact that the seed he says the Nuggets should earn is the one most experts agree is right where the team should be based on its talent level.
Perhaps former Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said it best during the last season’s squabble with Dwight Howard: “The only thing I’m ever uncomfortable with is bull—-. The only thing that ever liberates me is to be honest with what’s out there.”
Of course, many fans skewered Van Gundy for going public with the fact he knew Howard had asked for him to be fired insisting that the coach should have instead remained quiet and taken the so-called “high road.”
That’s the kind of double bind professional coaches, players and executives find themselves in on a daily basis. If they give the stock answers to questions they are accused of being evasive and “too PC.” Conversely, if they answer honestly they are met with the, “What the hell was he thinking?” response and are told they should have kept their mouths shut.
File this under the category of be careful what you ask for. If you want your favorite team’s player or coach to be truly honest, that very well may mean they will say something that you don’t like or don’t agree with, whether that be something about sports, politics or life. Furthermore, it means that you may now be challenged with a reality that differs from the narrative that you had constructed in your mind about who that athlete is or how he behaves.
Some pro athletes are the same people on camera as they are when the light turns off. Others are creating a persona for public consumption that differs substantially from who they authentically are.
We live in a TMZ world now where nearly everything about public figures has the potential to become public knowledge. Athletes today are no more flawed than those that came decades before them. The only difference now is those flaws can reach your cell phone in the time it takes to type 140 characters and paste a link.
Given the availability of such information it leaves sports fans with a few choices, some of which include:
1. Claim we only care about what athletes do between the lines and attempt to ignore everything else.
2. Pretend to be naive and listen to the fairly tales created by PR spin because the truth would deviate from our pollyannaish view of athletes.
3. Acknowledge that professional coaches and athletes are uniquely human like the rest of us, and that some of them are deeply flawed.
Perhaps this can be simplified even further. As humans we can choose self-deception and ignorance, or a wider but more painfully real view of the world for what it really is.
Can you handle the truth?
Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice, assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver and has served as a team consultant in the NBA. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio weeknights from 6-8 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTravisHeath.