The Way We Talk When We Talk About Athletes Is Dumb As Fuck. Understandable, But Dumb As Fuck


For many good and obvious reasons, Michael Jordan is considered the gold standard for contemporary athletes. His career and his success and his level of sustained greatness are the benchmarks other dominant athletes are judged by; in fact, it's considered an honor to even be included in the same conversation. (And, occasionally, an insult to his legacy if a person deemed, for whatever reason, not suitable for comparison is compared.)


Yet, while Jordan's status is deserved, there's a way we tend to talk about and assess this status that has always annoyed me. From 1991 to 1998, every full season he played ended in a championship. With this in mind, conversation about Michael Jordan tends to be centered in indeterminate qualities like "competitive nature" and "killer instinct." Jordan won, frequently and spectacularly, so he didn't just win. He is the ultimate winner; a cutthroat competitor who succeeded through sheer willpower and force of personality. But what this narrative obscures is that, from 1986 to 1998, Michael Jordan was the best player on the court every single time he stepped on the court. He was better than everyone. Much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much better. Larry Bird, the guy roundly considered to be the best basketball player on Earth in the early and mid 80s, famously said "I think it's just God disguised as Michael Jordan" after Jordan dropped 63 on his Celtics. And he said this in 1986, years before Jordan would even sniff a championship.

If you get a minute, go look at some of these highlights. Your first thought won't be "Damn, this dude was so competitive." Or "Damn, he just wanted it more than everyone else." It'll be "Damn. This motherfucker was amazing! It's like he's from a different planet." You know how Russell Westbrook flies around like a madman, trying to get every rebound, block every shot, and dunk on crowds of people from a step inside the three point line? Well, Russell Westbrook is 6'3. Imagine putting that same athleticism and motor in someone 6'6. And then give him hands the size of Shaq's. And Allen Iverson's agility. And Steve Nash's footwork. That's who Michael Jordan was. Was he a killer? Sure. A great competitor? Definitely! But none of that would have mattered if he wasn't one of the best pure athletes the galaxy has ever seen.

I understand why we do this, though. Sports takes up so much of our collective cultural psychic space that it's natural to assign some deeper, mystical and moral meaning to how athletes perform. We do this to justify the attention we give them, and also to provide answers for chance-based successes and failures we hope can be applicable in our own lives. An athlete misses a last second shot, he didn't just miss the shot. He choked because of some inherent and incorrectable mental or emotional flaw in his design. He makes the shot, he didn't just make the shot. He somehow wanted it more than the rest; as if "wanting something more" is quantifiable. The world makes more sense if an athlete fails because he's a bad or flawed person and succeeds because he's an impeccable one. The truth, that sports is largely a meritocracy where the best players are the best players because they're just better than the other players, is a bit harder to swallow.

Today, the day after the Super Bowl, much of the conversation about NFL MVP Cam Newton's lackluster performance last night will attempt to connect his personality to his abject failure against the Broncos. And everything both he and the Panthers achieved this season will be considered fraudulent. Because, apparently, the Panthers lost because a dance they did in the second quarter of a game played in November proved they weren't fit to win the biggest game. Or, better yet, Cam Newton's regrettable post-game press conference proved he wasn't fit to lead a Super Bowl team, as if outcomes for events happening currently are determined by things that haven't even happened yet.

And this is how the prevailing sports conversation and the narratives sprung from it tend to work. If you win, everything you've done before winning — even things with nothing at all to do with the outcome of the game — is then considered "a thing a winner does." If the Panthers would have won last night, the dabbing and the fun-loving and the balls given to kids after touchdowns would have all become a part of the winner's narrative. "The joy Cam played with all season was so palpable and so resonate that it engulfed the Super Bowl in its mass." Instead, these things will be considered to be characteristics associated with losing. With being a loser. And, if Cam wants to be a winner instead of a loser, he needs to change. To be a winner, he needs to do more things that winners do.

Yet, and this is were it gets tricky, there is room to criticize him after yesterday. But the criticisms should be about his performance yesterday. Not how things unrelated to his performance yesterday made any difference with how he happened to perform yesterday. From my understanding, time machines do not exist, so his post-game press conference could not have had any impact on his performance. But, you can call him out for being unprofessional there. Cam Newton didn't play like shit because he wanted it any less than the Broncos (collectively) did. He played like shit because the Broncos have one of the best defenses ever, and they spent the entire season making superstar players look like shit. (Except for Antonio Brown, of course.) You can say that it looks like he jumped away from that fumble. (Because he definitely did.) And you can even say that, considering the circumstance, jumping away from a fumble like that is one of the worst-looking things an athlete can do. (Because it definitely was.) But that play doesn't synopsize their season. Shit, it didn't even synopsize that game. They didn't lose because he didn't dive for that ball. Even if he happened to dive for it and somehow happened to recover it, they still would have lost. This, of course, doesn't excuse what he did. It just doesn't add any unnecessary narrative weight to that single action.


That said, I don't expect the collective sports-watching populace to start talking about sports in a more sober manner. Because it is more interesting to conjure battles of good versus evil, and to assign labels like "winner" and "loser" and to attach conditions, meanings, and definitions to those labels. And to pine on mythical and indeterminate qualities like "competitive spirit" and "killer instinct" and "clutch genes." Because if we remove those meanings and disregard those narratives, we're left with us just watching a bunch of obscenely rich and unfathomably athletic young people in tights and shorts attempting to succeed in a series of competitions where their success (or lack thereof) is solely due to skill and chance.

And that's just not as fun. And it's especially less fun to say "I wanna be like Mike" if you realize there's less than 1% of 1% of 1% of 1% of a chance you could.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)


Medium Meech

I'm going to say it. A lot of the perception on Cam is colored by his color. So many people (not surprisingly 100% of the ones that had a problem with the Beyonce halftime) were so overjoyed and just waiting to say, "see, all of things we said about this Uppity 'boy's behavior was true."


Yet when the other quarterback (who I happen to be a fan of) behaves much worse when he lost a super bowl we get:…