Yesterday morning I excitedly talked with a friend about the flurry of trades the Cavs pulled off to pretty much swap their entire backcourt for a new one. We were yapping about how the Lakers stole the Cavs’ first-round pick and debating whether they had enough time to integrate their new players, when another guy commented how the whole trade system “didn’t make any sense.” He is a soccer (or as he would say, “football”) fan, and he thinks it’s silly that teams have to actually trade players to acquire new ones, as opposed to simply buying them. While the soccer system of rich teams buying all the players they want is ridiculous to me, it is “more like the real world,” as this “footballer” claimed. Trades in general, highlighted by a furious surge of exchanges right before the trade deadline, are weird things. And they make it easy to lose sight of the people who are actually getting traded.
I often struggle to remember that NBA players are in fact people, and not just persons filling a role in the sports-entertainment institution. In a group text (my go-to place to process such earth-shaking events), I was typing reactions to the three-way trade between the Cavs, Jazz and Kings, and I caught myself expressing shock at how the Jazz would give up a valuable young player, Rodney Hood, for “Crowder’s carcass.” As soon as I realized what I was saying I froze. Did I really just refer to Jae Crowder, a living, breathing human being, who is one of the best two-hundred or so basketball players on the planet, as a “carcass”!? (Jae, if you’re reading this I apologize. That was terrible for me to think. I was, I hope, just going for some alliteration. I respect your game, you’re a tough player, and I met one of your cousins — he’s a good dude). That’s an extreme example, but glance at any online discussion like those on r/NBA and you can easily find players described in similar terms. “That’s a sick deal, two expirings and a pick,” wrote one Lakers fan, in reference to Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye, who, along with being really good at what they do, have contracts that expire at the end of the season. We get so caught up in wanting our teams to increase their talent and decrease their costs, and we forget that the people getting paid to bring, or increase, their talents are real people.
Isaiah Thomas is a real person. He has a family and, after moving from Sacramento to Phoenix, and then less than a year later to Boston, and then after a couple years to Cleveland, he was ready to settle down. Too bad for him; he gets to pack up and bring everyone over to Los Angeles. In LA already is Lou Williams, who just signed a cheapo 3-year deal to stay put with the Clippers. After playing for four teams in four years, he was willing to not seek his maximum salary (because he’s been unstoppable lately) in exchange for some stability. Of course, the Clips might turn around and trade him next year if they’re trying to rebuild, anyways.
What does it mean to be valuable? I’ve already used the word to describe a player in this article. Seeing a player just for the value they provide in a sports-entertainment setting is dehumanizing. Now I can hear the criticisms already. Dehumanizing?! We’re talking about basketball! And they make millions of dollars! Okay so maybe our perception of NBA players isn’t the most pressing issue facing society right now, but maintaining an awareness of an athlete’s humanity matters for two main reasons: 1. So that we listen when they talk about more important issues; and 2. So we learn not to let institutions strip people of humanity.
The NFL sees bodies as expendable. (Alas, I have so much to say about the Super Bowl and commercialism and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches. Please check out Clinton Yates’ article about the riot celebrations in Philly for The Undefeated and Dave Zirin’s blog entry from Edge of Sports). The NBA isn’t quite as extreme, but it still is hard to hold onto the humanity in players when we are constantly quantifying who they are with stats, advanced stats and contract figures. I’m not saying the experience of athletes compares to the plight of prisoners, but the process by which an institution shades our perception and convinces us to lose sight of humanity occurs in professional sports just as it occurs in prisons across our country. People get mad when athletes talk about social issues because the way we talk about sports lends our perception of athletes to economic terms. In a thoroughly industrialized and developed capitalist society, this line of thinking comes as no surprise. Stay woke, I guess.
Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu.