Back in the olden days of sports writing, when our hearts were young and Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler did not have Instagram access, we used to rely on the airwaves to provide us the material for our manufactured controversies.
The world in general was a wild place back then. Chinese pandemics, Middle East wars, asset bubbles, the whole kit and caboodle. Crazy, crazy stuff. But things were especially funky in our legacy publishing media, which at the time still more or less served as the trough from which the general public consumed its gossipy gruel.
Back then, the hands that rocked the cradle were the daytime talk-show hosts on the platforms that we referred to as “radio” and “cable television.” Members of this species were easily identified by their loud voices, paunchy midsections, and working-class accents, the last of which became more defined as the size of their paychecks grew. They believed in grit, hustle, and the ineffability of the goatee. These days, you might know them as the random middle-aged dude who occasionally pops into your Twitter timeline with a curiously punctuated post written in the style of a father sending a text message to his 20-something-year-old child.
In those days, the news cycle was governed by the reality that people did not have many options when it came to avoiding their work. Instagram and Snapchat did not exist. Twitter had yet to achieve critical mass. Facebook was still primarily a place where college kids creeped on attractive classmates and posted pictures that will someday be used against them in a Senate confirmation hearing.
When it came to overreacting to our public figures, the discourse was still largely dependent upon that small cadre of folks to coax our local athletes into saying the things that we would all then spend the next 24 hours crucifying them for.
My first introduction to the natural order of things came on an August afternoon at Dodger Stadium in 2008.
It had been a largely underwhelming first four months of the season for a Phillies team coming off its first playoff berth in more than a decade. As recently as two weeks earlier, the Phillies had been languishing in third place in the division, thanks in no small part to the struggles of superstar slugger Ryan Howard, who had finished June hitting just .215 with a .770 OPS and 114 strikeouts in 311 at-bats.
The performance had made the team as a whole and Howard as an individual the objects of frequent rounds of booing by their home crowd. But the Phillies entered the series against the Dodgers having won 10 of 14, and their cleanup-hitting first baseman had begun to turn his season around with a .296 average, .944 OPS and 12 home runs since the start of July.
Rollins, as was his custom, decided that the time had arrived for him to open his mouth. In a taping of “The Best Damn Sports Show Period” — yes, that is what it was called — the reigning National League MVP was asked by one of the hosts if Philadelphia was as tough a place to play as its reputation held.
“I might catch some flak for saying this, but, you know, they’re front-runners," Rollins responded. "When you’re doing good, they’re on your side. When you’re doing bad, they’re completely against you.”
If we had memes back then, a narrator would have then informed viewers that Rollins was right. He did catch some flak. In fact, he caught all of it. Rollins and Howard had barely made it out of the studio before the totally unsuspecting and well-intentioned producers of the “Best Damn Sports Show” emailed Philadelphia-area media outlets with a clip of Rollins’ comments.
By the time the duo arrived at the ballpark that day, a tempest was burning back east. The audio mixers at the drive-time radio shows crackled into the red with indignation. The faces on the pregame talk shows were awash with a hurt normally reserved for tender lovers.
Whaaaaaaat? A f-f-f-front-runner? Meeeeeee?
[Blink once into camera. Blink again.]
By the time the Phillies made it home, they’d been swept by the Dodgers and had lost five of seven on the road trip and Rollins had gone 2-for-22 since making his remark. The next time Rollins was introduced at Citizens Bank Park, he was pummeled with boos by a home crowd that seemed oblivious to a most inconvenient fact. In reacting as they did, the fans were proving his point.
The technological circumstances have undoubtedly changed over the last decade-plus. The outrage machine no longer operates in stages, but in a continuous wave. Just like food delivery, and retail shopping, and ground transportation, the middle man has been eliminated. No longer must we wait for a mass mediated Pony Express to give us the headlines that rile us up.
If Joel Embiid wants to make his displeasure known, he needn’t wait to be in driving distance of Studio City. All he must do is raise a finger to his lips and yell something at the crowd and by the time the next workday begins, everybody will know. He will be asked about it afterward, and his response will be broadcast in real time, and, thanks to his millions of social media followers, he will control the message from there.
At the same time, it is very much now as it was then. The audience is the same. The reaction hasn’t changed, either. The only difference is that, thanks to technology, our news makers have more control.
The ones who recognize this power can wield it in one of three manners. They can respect it, or they can abuse it, or they can log on and mess around with everybody for their own personal amusement. Granted, there are thin and undefined lines separating the three, and especially the latter two.
But given the social media behavior that we’ve seen from men whose jobs have a far greater impact on people’s quality of life, doesn’t it feel a bit silly to spend any amount of our sincerity on the posts of professional athletes? Why should we expect 25-year-old basketball players to act in a manner commensurate with their gravity when we can’t expect the same out of people who can irrevocably alter large swaths of lives with the press of a button?
It feels silly even to write something such as this, because the mere act of repeating a non-story grants it greater legitimacy than it otherwise would have had. And there are few things worse than feeling like an unwitting jester for an internet troll.
But, then, this is my job, and the fact that I have it makes me a willing participant in the reality show that professional sports — and the NBA especially — have fast become. So I’ll say this: If you’re reacting to Embiid’s Instagram post and subsequent back-and-forth with Jimmy Butler with any more genuine care than you might an episode of “The Bachelor,” there’s a very good chance that you are doing it wrong.
If I was 25 years old, and had a boring day off, and I realized that I could dictate news cycles and send thousands of grown-ass adults into conniptions with ambiguous social media posts, I suspect that such a thing would amuse me, and that I would make full use of my power, and then I would sit back and watch the mayhem unfold and laugh about it with my real-life friends.
Would that make me immature? Developmentally arrested? Perhaps so. But, then, what does that say about the people who react to my posts as if they are the content of my character?
Four months from now, the Sixers either will have reached the NBA Finals, or begun the process of reevaluation. Embiid will either have shown himself to be a championship-caliber centerpiece, or a player still short of his potential. Whichever circumstance occurs, the current supposed controversy will have zero impact on his future.