Serena, LeBron, Jordan and Risk-Reward

The games haven't changed. We're seeing—and seeing—them for what they are.

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You won’t find much mention of Henry A. Landsberger amid the burgeoning discussions of sports this weekend, but his impact underpins almost every discussion.  Landsberger isn’t a former professional athlete or sports commentator.  Instead, he’s the social scientist who coined the term Hawthorne Effect, or put simply how the act of observation changes the observed.

It’s an important concept to remember when watching sports these days.  We’ve been through a summer of sports discontents.  LeBron James’ failure to offer on-court congratulations to the members of the Orlando Magic at the end of their Eastern Conference Finals series, LeGarrette Blount’s sucker punch of Byron Hout at the end of the University of Oregon-Boise State football game last week, Michael Jordan’s somewhat less than gracious Hall of Fame speech on Friday and Serena Williams’ profanity laced tirade at the end of her U.S. Open loss to Kim Clijsters on Saturday night.  It almost makes you wonder if sportsmanship died and the media forgot to cover the funeral. 

But remember the Hawthorne Effect.  Our observation of sport has grown from idle pastime to an obsessively intense level.  At some level, it is neither the audience or the athletes causing this; it’s the medium.  As most other forms of television entertainment have lost huge audience shares to an ever multiplying array of channels and other home entertainment options (not to mention the medium on which you’re reading this article), televised sports have mostly held their own.  The amount of eyeballs glued to a Super Bowl or a game of the NBA Finals is indeed down from a decade ago, but the decline is nowhere near as far as the drop off for sitcoms, action-adventure shows and the like.  And the influence of sports, the clear-cut notion that there is a winner, a loser and a handful of impact players who affected the result has helped turn singing, cooking, dancing and even modeling into widely watched televised contests that resemble an athletic event.

What we’ve seen recently isn’t new.  James wasn’t the first athlete to forgo the postgame handshake ritual.  Some post-game fisticuffs aren’t unusual at any level of football; after all these truly behemoth-sized men have been violently colliding with each other for three hours.  Hard feelings and bruised egos are only natural.  Jordan was renowned as a ruthless competitor whether on or off the basketball court. (Remember his gambling debts?) Are we supposed to be surprised that he hasn’t mellowed with the onset of middle age? 

Serena Williams’ outburst at the U.S. Open might just be the most revealing of why these incidents aren’t as newsworthy as they seem.  Tennis is prone to diva antics.  From llie Nastase through three of Serena’s idols, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles, vehement arguments with the officials is nearly as much a part of the game as the baselines.  Her idols all had meltdowns as severe as Serena’s, but they weren’t as badly timed.  Williams’ meltdown came at match point in a game when she already had received a warning for unsportsmanlike conduct. Thus the second demerit cost her a chance at saving two match points and perhaps forcing a second set tiebreaker.   Williams had already pulled herself out of a dire situation a few minutes before the dispute.  Down 3-4 serving at 15-40, she saved two break points; the loss of either would certainly have cost her the match, and in the process she served three 110 mph aces to rally and win the game.

Most of the hand wringing over athletes behaving badly is that the media commentators want the athletes to be like them every bit as much as we want to be like Mike.  They want them to observe the same risk-reward ratios we do.  Watch any game, and you will hear announcers sing praises of some player who stays within him or herself and doesn’t take unreasonable risks; that player might be good, but they’ll never be great.  Great athletes are great athletes precisely because they are able to routinely challenge the odds—often long odds—and win consistently. 

It’s why great athletes tend to make such terrible team executives; they don’t assess risk properly (see Isiah Thomas’ tenure with the New York Knicks as a case study).  It’s also why they don’t see the ordinary rules of decorum applying to them.  Athletic fame is one of the most consistent guarantors of enduring celebrity, and youngsters who seem bound for glory are pampered from the moment they get on that road.  In other words, they aren’t like us.  It’s a fool’s errand to think that they are.  And athletes won’t become more like us (or that very idealized sense of us that the networks sell) merely for the act of televising their every act.  In fact, they become less.

Race exacerbates this distance.  No one ever demanded of Muhammad Ali that he play in Peoria.  His antics played well on the South Side of Chicago, where I grew up and that was fine; if Peoria wanted to ride the bandwagon, c’mon down, there’s room.  Since Jordan’s ascent to global icon, the demands are different; black superstars are supposed to be crossover successes.  Those that don’t, whether through misbehavior (Allen Iverson, Barry Bonds) or lack of charisma (Tim Duncan) are regarded as underachievers in some precincts.  It’s demanded that African-American superstars shoulder the burden of race—swallow the slights and indignities of racial difference—and still walk the crossover line as gracefully as Philippe Petit.  That they don’t always do it isn’t as surprising—or telling—as the expectation that they should. 

Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

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