Paul Pierce just did one of the best interviews I’ve read from a still-active player. In it, Pierce speaks openly and directly with Jackie MacMullan on a wide array of basketball-related topics including the work ethic of younger players, his relationships with various ex-teammates, the failures of some of those ex-teammates, and more. The piece closes with his regrets over his career and the peace he has made with retiring after next season.
The interview verified that Pierce’s nickname (“The Truth”) is wholly accurate. He wasn’t slandering, he wasn’t speaking out of turn, and he wasn’t insulting or disrespectful in what he said. He was simply speaking for himself, offering his opinion, and not mincing words. At the same time, he was speaking difficult truths about players who may not want to hear it. By all accounts, this is exactly what he is like in person.
Somehow, this resulted in comments from fans and media members about how Pierce “slammed” Deron Williams, how “bad” Pierce is, wondering if he is as “crazy” as Kevin Garnett, or if, now that he’s nearing retirement, he has become the NBA version of an older relative who has exactly zero concern for what you think of him.
If we ask a player to respond to questions, only to take him to task for answering questions directly and honestly, should we expect him to speak in anything other than platitudes? By criticizing the interesting, or deeming it “bulletin board material”, we encourage stock answers like “Both teams played hard”. Which we then, in turn, complain about for being shallow and meaningless. This reminds me of a simple version of the ultimate world.
The ultimate world is beginning to have a non-playing media which covers the highest levels of play, yet we still rely on elite players to self-report their experiences to the rest of us. Our expectations are such that players like Anna Nazarov, Beau Kittredge, Brett Matzuka, Calise Cardenas, and many others write articles about ultimate’s top events. We rely on players like Jonathan Neeley and Elliot Trotter to edit and run this very website. There are a host of other examples here at Skyd, there at Ultiworld, and on many team sites, blogs, and reddit threads spread across the wide world’s web.
The funny thing that happens is that frequently these players deal with significant negativity after sharing their experiences. Matzuka’s most recent work is a relatively low-key example of this, as he was criticized for his writing style, his decision to play with Johnny Bravo, and whatever else you’d care to read into the subtext of the comments there.
In the current ultimate world, to criticize the media is to criticize the players and vice-versa. And that’s a strange place to inhabit. If readers criticize the media/player’s coverage of an event, the likelihood that events will be covered in the future decreases. If a media/player criticizes a player during an event, the likelihood for future robust event coverage decreases.
For those who work as writers, analysts, commentators, and artists of all stripes, criticism of the work is expected and serves as a guideline to perfecting the craft. For professional athletes whose livelihoods are based, in part, on the media reporting about their exploits, criticism of their on-field actions is part of the job. While they needn’t speak kindly, be coherent, be accurate, or respect the media, they are required to interact with reporters, hosts, and interviewers.
But what if the athletes aren’t paid? What does an athlete who pays for the privilege of playing owe the media?
If Marshawn Lynch fumbles in the biggest game of his life, he’ll pay a price in the media. He’ll get beaten up for days, weeks, months, years. It might well affect his future earning potential, as well as his legacy within the sport. And he’ll go home to the house funded by being available for that very criticism. When Kevin Durant was labeled “Too Nice,” those words not only helped pay his salary, but also allowed him to counter with branding of his own. Both of these men have professionals employed directly by them to work on branding, media training, and more. Beyond that, Lynch has his own line of apparel, and Durant has gigantic sponsorship contracts with Nike and Sprint. All of these are external resources and platforms used to refine and broadcast their messages about themselves. Through this, they have direct influence on our perception of them which can either strengthen or counter the media coverage of them.
There are not nearly as many ultimate players who have trained for interviews, let alone who have resources and support from global brands like Nike or Sprint at their disposal. Instead, ultimate players are frequently self-reporting on the experiences that they, their teammates, and their opponents share. They’re simultaneously amateur athletes and amateur reporters. If a reporter-player on a bye writes something unflattering about a player competing that round, what recourse does the player have? Should a player be expected to write a response?
If an ultimate player drops a goal late in a national final, particularly in a tight game, anyone writing about the game will mention it. If there is a reporter present who is worth her salt, she will ask the direct and painful question: “What went through your mind after you dropped that goal?” Whatever the outlet – Skyd, Ultiworld, USAU, an ultimate blogger, or even the Washington Post – the drop will be a huge piece in the story of that game. Does the player have any obligation to respond to the question?
The first time I really thought about what this means was when I overheard players at 2014 USAU Nationals speaking about what it was like to have a camera come up to them and zoom in during injuries, directly filming their pain and the tears streaming down cheeks. As we’re all trained to understand, injuries affect the outcome of the game and thus are worth recording. But what’s the compensation for this intrusion? Which of the players at Nationals who’ve invested tens of thousands – or even hundreds of thousands – of dollars in addition to tens of thousands of hours in his career would say that he traveled to Texas to have the most painful moment of his life broadcast for all to see?
Somewhat surprisingly, the answer is more than zero. I wished, the whole time I played, to be interviewed before a game, after a game, or at halftime. Or written about after doing something brilliant, bad, boorish, or just plain bizarre. It’s one of the reasons I blogged about my experiences as a player: I wanted to tell my story to anyone who wanted to listen, and I was pleasantly surprised when an actual readership developed.
On the other hand, I’ve played with many people who didn’t even like talking to their teammates or families about their experiences. I can name national champions from different teams, decades, and divisions who would prefer that their names never appear on an ultimate news site, and that dinner table conversations never revolve around their play. They play the game and that’s all they want.
Who are we to demand more?