There are social rules we abide by. Things like offering help to those who need it, or if they don’t ask and we know them well enough, giving it anyway. You see someone old enough to be a grandparent having a hard time with something, a kid who looks lost, someone drops something and you instinctively move to pick it up and get it to them — all these things are a mix of moral values and responsibility, some that spring from the way we grew up, others because it just feels right. We act on impulse.
The same social rules apply when we hear about bad things happening to friends and loved ones as they do when we learn awful things perfect strangers are going through. Stories in the news about natural disasters, scrolling through social media and stopping when we see an ask for help — we feel a tinge in our gut, we want to help.
What happens to these social rules when we hear about an athlete — that rare kind of complete stranger we pride ourselves in knowing the most infinitesimal details about — going through a similarly difficult time has to be one of the most sudden, and strangest, inversions. The feeling immediately becomes them owing us versus us owing them. And what they owe, whether explanation or information, equates to proof of hardship or discomfort that will then sway how much sympathy we’ll give and how long we’re willing to give it.
It happened with Ja Morant in his recent ESPN interview with Jalen Rose (and will continue to happen with every availability he has combed over for a verbal clue or misstep), and it’s happening with Andrew Wiggins’ continued absence from the Golden State Warriors.
Wiggins, who’s been away from the team since February 14, is already a rarity in a league that makes a point to encourage its athletes to be publicly accessible because he’s been consistently private. His low-profile when he played for Minnesota was hardly a point of interest because the Wolves and Wiggins weren’t competitive. While Wiggins’ current absence has nothing to do with his personal preference for privacy, the public interest and speculation into reasons why he’s away from the team explodes under the umbrella of the Warriors because of the franchise’s competitive caliber and public interest.
Both of those things, and the periods of public grace granted to athletes, have their own psychological offshoots — a fan’s sense of loyalty to their team, an investment of time and emotions and the expectations of return for those things — but where grace cuts off most abruptly for athletes tends to come down to money. Mainly, how much they’re paid in direct correlation to how much sympathy we’re willing to offer.
There is no other public-facing job where demands for disclosure based on salary are treated as expectation, or personally owed. We don’t even do this with politicians, who (at least in democracy on paper) knowingly take on the mantle of working for the public having been placed in power by them. While a fair portion of an NBA team’s revenue comes from ticket sales and slinging of jerseys and merchandise, no fan or member of the media pays NBA players directly, there is no whiff of goods or services exchanged for attendance. You can buy a ticket to a game and still find the player you came to see is sitting out, or is away from the team. Sometimes it’s an injury, sometimes it’s a personal reason; there is a fine line between what is relevant to reporting on the team and what’s nobody’s business, and entitlement is what blurs it.
Beyond being plainly gross, that entitlement can grow, quickly, from tricky to problematic. It starts in the language used to talk about an athlete’s absence. Words like “allowed” and “disclose” suggest anyone else is the arbiter of that person’s time, their personal life, but them. Social media removes a lot of our hesitation in talking into the void, but losing the sense of what it is we’re saying (or rumors we’re entertaining) because we don’t need to look someone like Wiggins in the eye when we ask why he didn’t think of us, or the Warriors chances this season, while going through something that is clearly deeply personal and impactful enough to be gone for more than a month, is delusional as it is reckless.
It’s in the nature of fans and media — who follow because they love it or are being paid to cover it — to want the NBA’s every beat and storyline. Especially in a league where off-court activity has become so relevant to on-court storylines (occasionally, performance). We want to know everything, and 80% of the time, we do. Still, it shouldn’t feel shocking or offensive when the wall that’s always there between our perception of players and real life, becomes, for a moment, visible. The added element of Wiggins’ intrinsic “value” to a team as it struggles with its flagging postseason chances (try, for a second, saying that out loud and realizing how it sounds in real life) doesn’t justify repeatedly running into or trying to scale that wall, scrabbling for purchase in somebody else’s business.
We afford grace of separation and empathy to strangers every day and don’t assume they owe us anything. We can do the same to a person who happens to play a sport we love, for a team we root for, who is clearly going through it. We can act on better impulses.