To all of you merlot sippers and anti-jock philospher kings who still insist that sports in no way imitate lifeand certainly not to the close degree of your Beaux ArtsI have some bad news for you. The debate is over, and y’all lost like big dogs.
After all these years, I have found the smoking (or should we say “choking”?) gun to prove my case. Ladies and gentlemen, pooh-poohers all, please give a big howdy to Latrell “Loose Wheel” Sprewell.
You’ve doubtless heard by now of Mssr. Sprewell, that young, basketball-playing fool who momentarily lost his cool during a team practice, attempted to choke the life out of his coach, and then, after a brief exit, returned to womp the coach, P.J. Carlesimo, upside the head.
Latrell is pro basketball’s Mr. X these days. After his outburst last week, he’s an ex-Golden State Warrior (the team voided his $32 million contract); an ex-Converse Shoes endorser (the company also voided a contract with Loose Wheel); and an ex-All Star (the NBA having unceremoniously and summarily suspended him for one year).
In forfeiting those other roles, Sprewell has momentarily become a household name. He has jumped from the sports pages to NPR and Newsweek. His public mea culpa was carried live on TV. And, in what must be a landmark weird-ugly moment in broadcasting history, the disembodied Beltway brains on Meet the Press have yammered about Spree (which, by the way, you won’t hear them do very often about “Afternoon of a Faun”).
And that brings us back round to the point. Latrell Sprewell is ubiquitous as the current poster child for bad citizenship.
What began as a simple case of player-with-punk-attitude-tries-to-kill-coach, team-kicks-player-to-curb now holds a mirror to our whole culture. In fact, the case imitates American social and political life so closely that all you naysayers will be hard pressed to find an example, other perhaps than Dennis Rodman’s cross-dressed self-wedding, not mimicked by Sprewell’s spree. You may not want to look. It’s not real pretty.
We could begin with the oft-lamented decline of manners and civility within our society. What to do when a coach gets in your face? Wellduuh!you lay a beating on him. (Then huff up to the general manager’s office, demand to be traded, and go back to kick Coach’s hiney again.)
Granted, Sprewell’s behavior wasn’t a perfect reflection of American society. Otherwise, he would have pulled a handgun from his gym bag and capped Carlesimo on the spot.
Then there are money, privilege, and power, which together most nearly equate to godliness in America. Before his $32 million rampage, Sprewell possessed a nouveau abundance of all three. He epitomized the contemporary species of professional athlete, especially observable in the NBA, who will accept morbidly obese paychecks but very little coaching.
Instead, teams mollycoddle these players, and powerless coaches keep their jobs by keeping their cash-snorting celebrities pacified. That’s one reason many coaches entering the pros, like Boston’s Rick Pitino, won’t accept the job unless they wield the power of the general manager’s office too.
Otherwise, the mercurial and eccentric millionaires on the court make all the rules. Gee, wonder what aspect of society that dynamic could possibly reflect?
Speaking of gazillionaires, the case is a reflection of our free-market capitalist heritage, too. After the Warriors ripped up their contract with Sprewell, another NBA organization, less concerned with its players’ characters than the color of the ink on its balance sheet, would doubtless have snatched up Sprewell for a fraction of his market value. (When Lawrence Phillips, one of the finalists for the NFL’s Mr. Incongeniality Award, finally exhausted the patience of the St. Louis Rams, the rushing-starved Miami Dolphins provided a parachute.) “We don’t condone his action,” you can almost hear the team spokesperson saying, “but this was a business decision.”
In Spree’s case, capitalism did not operate unfettered, since the NBA, for its own perverse reasons, zapped Sprewell with a one-year ban. That the suspension happened to be a morally defensible course of action was serendipitously coincidental.
For the sake of imagea top-of-mind issue for Commissioner David Stern with the imminent retirement of Michael Jordanno team could be allowed to sign Sprewell and feed the perception that the league is soft on thuggery. The only way to prevent another team from intervening was to impose a year-long suspension.
The length of the ban, in turn, gave rise to moral relativism, victimhood, litigiousness, and race-baiting.
How, relatively speaking, could Sprewell’s actions receive punishment that seems almost draconian compared to sanctions against Dennis Rodman for kicking a cameraman? It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that Rodman is a key member of the NBA’s best, most popular team. Could it?
The long suspension, imposed to protect franchise owners from their own amoral impulses, allowed the NBA Players Association to portray Sprewell as a victim and a scapegoatbaited into lashing out by an abusive coach and then unfairly punished as an example to other violence-mongers and would-be coach-killers.
The Association, not exactly clad in a breastplate of righteousness, is appealing Sprewell’s suspension. Meanwhile, his agent, in a spectacular display of circular reasoning, argued that since Carlesimo has had personal difficulties with other playersand since most of the NBA’s players are blackSprewell must therefore be a victim of his coach’s racism.
All of which brings to mind the question attorney Joseph Welch put to Sen. Joe McCarthy: “Have you left no sense of decency?” Apparently not, if you inquire of Spree’s agent (who is consulting with Johnnie Cochran), the NBA Players Association, and the league’s other owners.
Until Monday, when he apologized to Carlesimo, Sprewell hadn’t demonstrated a very highly developed sense of shame either. Instead, he followed a strategy preached by PR gurus and image consultants: Admit to errors but concede no guilt. (In its most highly evolved form, usually seen in Washington, D.C., such admissions are phrased in the passive voiceas in “mistakes were made”neatly eliminating personal pronouns altogether.)
Whatever his primary motivation, Stern took the proper course in suspending Sprewell. He declared that pro-sports leagues shouldn’t have to condone behavior that other segments of society wouldn’t tolerate.
Perhaps Stern’s assessment of the current limits to society’s tolerance is charitable, but his comments are suggestive. Next time someone tries to use financial or celebrity status to exempt himself from rules, or grubbily puts money above common decency, or shamelessly seeks to use victimization as a screen for his own egregious actions, wouldn’t it be nice if we could suspend him from society for a while?
Maybe, for a change, life should imitate sports.
How it looks from the La-Z-Boy
Orange: Nebraska 38, Tennessee 27
Rose: Michigan 24, Washington State 17
Sugar: Florida State 23, Ohio State 20
Citrus: Penn State 24, Florida 16
Cotton: UCLA 34, Texas A&M 20
Outback: Georgia 21, Wisconsin 17
Peach: Auburn 27, Clemson 17
Independence: Notre Dame 24, LSU 14
Gator: North Carolina 17, Virginia Tech 10
Fiesta: Kansas State 26, Syracuse 14
Motor City: Ole Miss 21, Marshall 14
Sun: Iowa 28, Arizona State 27
Liberty: Southern Miss 20, Pittsburgh 17