In basketball, a foul is usually just a foul. But sometimes it feels like so much more: a Rorschach test that exposes one’s preconceptions about the game, a peek into a player’s thinking, a career-wide referendum.
Was that an evil kick or an involuntary swing? When does an outstretched arm turn into a blow? Can an act in court be judged on its own or should the actor be considered as well?
A succession of harsh fouls in three different NBA first-round playoff series — and subsequent reactions to them — has reinforced the extent to which player reputations, and the swirling stories associated with them, affect the way the athletes, umpires and umpires seem to color. , league officials and fans process the action unfolding on the pitch.
After each case, the players’ reputations were put into action in one way or another – as supporting evidence, as a shield, as a liability.
It started last Monday, when Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors stomped his size 45 sneaker into the sternum of Sacramento Kings big man Domantas Sabonis after Sabonis grabbed Green while he was lying on the field. Thereafter, the league suspended Green for one game, citing not just the on-court incident, but his entire body of work.
“The suspension was based in part on Green’s history of unsportsmanlike conduct,” the NBA statement said, which evokes the true pinnacle of combative play in his career but makes no reference to any specific past offense.
A few nights later, James Harden of the Philadelphia 76ers was ejected for hitting Nets forward Royce O’Neal below the waist on a drive to the basket. In the locker room after the game, Harden pointed to his own reputation as part of his defense, mentioning that he had never been thrown out of a game before.
“I’m not labeled as a dirty player,” said Harden, referring to the public perception of him. He shouldn’t be judged harshly, he suggested, because, so to speak, he’s not that guy. (Of course, Harden is often labeled by critics as something else: a player willing to flop to blow the whistle and earn free throws.)
Then, two nights after that, Dillon Brooks of the Memphis Grizzlies was ejected for hitting LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers in the groin while trying to defend him. The next day, Brooks also nodded toward his reputation, speculating that it must have preceded him during the game and informed the umpires’ quick decision to throw him.
“The media makes me a bad guy, the fans make me a bad guy and that just creates a whole different persona for me,” said Brooks. “So now you think I intended to punch LeBron James in the nuts.”
In sports, reputations are formed quickly and are extremely difficult to shed. Athletes live their professional lives in high definition. Every movement is broken down ad nauseam, scrutinized in slow motion and reflected through the eyes of analysts and commentators.
What reinforces this dynamic is the fact that history in the world of sports looms large and always seems to be on the mind. Record books and bygone statistics are invoked every day. Fans hold big wins and heartbreaking losses etched in their hearts.
“The past,” wrote William Faulkner, “is never dead. It’s not even the past.”
In addition, the impulse to create two-dimensional characterizations about one’s behavior, to reduce their action to moral terms, is widespread in the sports world, where fans and news media members often apply a storybook framework to the action, pundits have a say.
“We create this scheme, these cognitive shortcuts to read the world, and we quickly label individuals as friend or foe,” said Arthur Raney, a Florida state communications professor who has studied how emotions shape the viewing experience of sports. “We do that with people on the street, and we do that with entertainment and sports and politics and everything else.”
Raney added, “And once those frames, that schedule are established, they serve as a lens through our expectations of the future.”
So there will always be tension around whether an athlete’s reputation is fully justified.
A longtime NFL defensive tackle, Ndamukong Suh developed a reputation as a dirty player after a seemingly countless number of bad hits, fines and suspensions. Suh has argued against this characterization at various points in his career – though it’s debatable whether anyone else could be convinced.
“Before judging someone, always take the time to get to know them, meet them, have coffee with them, whatever it may be, and then go from there,” Suh said in 2019.
Many will similarly scoff at the claims of innocence of Brooks, who led the NBA with 18 technical fouls in the regular season and made headlines earlier in the playoffs for taunting James (“I don’t care. He is old.”) – essentially casting themselves as a villain with no help from anyone.
But when people are involved in judging behavior in sports, there will always be unanswerable questions about how those decisions are made. Did a player’s bad reputation lead referees to call more penalties or fouls in borderline cases? How many fines and suspensions does a player earn after building a reputation as someone who deserves them?
“Ultimately, top-level officials don’t hold grudges, but are influenced by stories in a preconscious, mythical way,” said Stephen Mosher, a retired professor of sports management at Ithaca College.
Reputations can be suffocating. Dennis Rodman’s reputation as an erratic and unsportsmanlike competitor — developed with the Detroit Pistons and honed with the San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls — overshadows his status as one of the greatest defensive players in NBA history. Metta Sandiford-Artest, years after his involvement in the fan-player brawl known as the Malice at the Palace in 2004, when he was still known as Ron Artest, developed a reputation as a quiet veteran, but only after he got his name changed and publicly considering his mental health.
And reputations can feel problematic if they appear to be derived from race in any part. Raney said the potential for this was greater in sports that were “racist” — that is, closely tied to one race. He cited tennis star Serena Williams, who is black, as an example of an athlete who has sometimes built an outrageous reputation for the color of her skin in the context of her sport. A recent survey of European football revealed the dramatic differences in the way television commentators talked about white players (lauding their intelligence and work ethic) versus non-white players (emphasizing physical attributes such as strength and speed) and how far-reaching the impact of these perceptions could be. are.
“I would look directly at the narrators, announcers, people of color, why these perceptions are so important,” Mosher said.
Sports leagues invite speculation about the role reputations play in competition due to the seemingly subjective nature of service.
Earlier in the game from which Harden was ejected, 76ers center Joel Embiid blatantly tried to kick the Nets’ Nic Claxton between the legs. Embiid, who has largely maintained a reputation as a clean player, was not ejected or suspended. Harden and Brooks were also not suspended following their eviction. (The NBA, like other sports leagues, considers a player’s disciplinary history when handing out penalties.)
In explaining the disparity of outcomes between Embiid and Harden, the NBA has argued that motive mattered far less than outcome, and that each incident, even if similar to another, should be judged on its own terms. No two shots to the groin are essentially the same.
“You have to be accountable for your actions beyond the realm of intent,” Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s chief of referee development, said in an interview on ESPN.
But many people’s thoughts went to a similar place. What would have happened if someone else, say Draymond Green? – was kicked out the same way Embiid was.