What Do We Really Want to Know About The Off-Field Lives Of Athletes?

The question is simple: What do we actually want to see from sports figures?

From the athletes who play and train, what do we want to discover about them before game time? From the coaches and managers who strategize and tweak, what makes them survivalists in a tough profession? From the executives that scout, hire and fire, what gives them the eyes that others don’t have? Even from the commissioners who command and demand, what traits live within that make them trusted leaders?

It’s a question that we thought had been answered over the years with beat reporters, broadcast teams, exposé (and gotcha) journalism and word-of-mouth accounts. Yet with each passing season, and seemingly more access to popular sports figures than ever before, we’re struggling to answer that question. The latest example of this was featured earlier this week.

Prior to and shortly after its debut on Election Night, there had been some interesting criticism about the HBO documentary The Offseason: Kevin Durant. The Oklahoma City Thunder forward and reigning NBA MVP decided to give the premium channel a look into his life on and off the court. [For those who have seen it, please feel free to share your opinions on the program in the comment section.]

After watching a screener prior to its premiere, Deadspin’s Billy Haisley was fed up to say the least in a post simply called “F*** Kevin Durant,” in which he lambasted both the program and Durant himself:

Durant, recall, was involuntarily cast as the anti-LeBron when the public decided to turn against the best player in the NBA. Their contrasting contract situations—LeBron used every ounce of leverage he could squeeze out of the rigged system to take less money and play with his friends, while Durant signed away his power for as much money as possible—made them easy foils.

Instead of rejecting this lazy comparison, Durant ran with it. At every turn, he’s tried to encourage the perception that he’s a humble team player who cares about nothing but wins and all the other empty bromides this site practically exists in opposition to. The purest evidence that Durant had fully internalized the anti-LeBron narrative was that Servant nickname, a statement that only made sense as the end result of a brand’s having done the calculations to show that there was more money in being seen as a Servant than a murderous, badass Slim Reaper.

Ira Boudway of Bloomberg Businessweek didn’t drop as many obscenities but reached a partially similar conclusion when it came to questioning the intentions of The Offseason. As part of his critique, he looked at the broader trend of athletes turning the cameras and microphones on themselves:

The Offseason is part of trend whereby star athletes become their own media wings. No longer content just to play the games and give quotes to reporters, the most sought-after players are now writing first-person stories, running digital media startups, and producing television and online videos. Last year, for instance, Steve Nash collaborated with ESPN’s Grantland on a video series about his efforts to rehabilitate from injuries. In October, Derek Jeter launched the Players’ Tribune, a site on which athletes post essays and get senior editor titles. LeBron James has gone the roman-a-clef route, co-producing Survivor’s Remorse, a drama series on Starz about a basketball player’s escape from poverty.

These projects range from surprisingly good (Nash admitting that money is a part of his motivation, or Blake Griffin writing about his former boss, Donald Sterling) to predictably terrible (Derek Jeter’s photo essay on cleaning out his locker). All of them are self-serving. They cannot be otherwise.

Now, these reviews among several others are fair game, and based on the dovetail connection of these multiple pieces of Durant’s team – his representative agency, a bidding war for his feet, his decision to withdraw from Team USA in the FIBA World Cup – it’s safe to say that they may be accurate. Yet for his fans and perhaps people wanting to avoid the political garbage of Election Night, it may have not been so problematic. They may have felt like this show illuminated the process of his stardom, even if the template is well-worn because of attention-starved “housewives” and Axe-doused, hair-gelled buffoons.

Normally, commentary about other commentary isn’t this Scribe’s thing unless it poses a direct and meaningful question to the reader/viewer/listener. However, in reading those reviews, there’s the initial question again just begging for an answer.

What do we really want to know from these people?

On social media, one can carefully select the right image, tweet the right 140 characters or share the most inspiring statuses to provide a window into his or her world. For the athlete or the rare but intrepid coach, engaging in these platforms means passing the time with fans by talking about the mundane, providing some biting wit, or broaching the line of decency with the wrong photos and words. This is the one place in sports, for better or worse, where the subject controls the message.

For most, this is just fine, even with prevalent dangers from expressing too much. After all, in the past, the only athletes the public ever heard more than postgame soundbites of were the superstars of their sports. Yet, even though there are other outlets in modern times – notably online and now a few cable network shows – what hasn’t changed over time is the draw of those very few high-wattage superstars who have the gamut of media offerings to display something other than their athletic skills.

From vaudeville tours in the early 20th century to Barbara Walters specials in the 1980s to premium cable reality series in 2014, we get these further selected and, often, carefully crafted anecdotes about those who move the meter in sports. Between the on-air staff, the ad sales teams that sell the property to clients, the executives that strum up publicity and the subjects themselves, nothing comes to the public purely unfiltered. Nothing ever has when it comes to our favorite players and coaches.

Even with these exclusives, these are still just windows into the home as opposed to actual tours inside. If these are just mere glimpses into a partially projected reality, can we be satisfied with what we’re given? Do we even want them if we’re just going to see false humility or unearned arrogance?

The alternative to this, of course, is asking for everyone involved to just shut up and play, coach or get rid of whomever is ruining the team. If we want sports figures to be mindless drones, then maybe we shouldn’t pay attention to anything they do before 7:30 PM and after 10:30 PM local time. After all, the only thing that matters is what (s)he does inside the lines, right? No matter if these people are one starter’s injury from making a Super Bowl run or a future Hall of Famer chucking up shots of desperation, they are here for sheer entertainment.

Yet, if we want them to show us more than game-winning shots and demonstrative emotions in victory or defeat, then we should start asking what is worth the extra time and attention we give on top of what we give to the games themselves. Are the offseason weddings and Rovellian-like brand strategy meetings worth clearing DVR space for? Are we going to look at training montages as some way to inspire us to get back to that old high school weight? Does anyone want to see players recover from surgery and be reminded of a painful time under the knife years ago?

Honestly, what do we want to know?

3 Replies to “What Do We Really Want to Know About The Off-Field Lives Of Athletes?”

  1. We want athletes to be authentic and unfiltered, then when we get authenticity and unfilteredness, we’re appalled and tell them to be quiet. Athletes, like people, can and will be terrible, and sometimes keeping on vs. off the field as separate as possible is the only way this thing works.

    -Ed.

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