Which Mirror Now?


I highly suggest you turn your eyes to this lengthy post by Vince Grzegorek of Cleveland Scene, on the touchy subject of how the fuck a beat writer covers Delonte West. Vince and I had talked about this a few times prior; he felt the team was trying to make like this was a non-issue, and had decided, for political reasons, to pretend this wasn't an incredibly important topic to pursue. But then he changed his mind, got some quotes, and has started the conversation.

To me, the tricky part is that West's is a medical situation that can't be discussed, for fear of aggravating it. It would be like if asking a guy about his back sent shooting pains up and down it. Hopefully, at some point that won't be the case. But then what? Can West ever be asked about his brain, or is that the equivalent of trying to take a photo of a healing knee with a bunch of rocks? And do we attribute anything that goes wrong with him, on or off the court, to some sort of relapse? Over at my other place of employment, some asshole commenter lit into the BREAKING item about Delonte's charges with the typical "millionaires shouldn't complain stupid thug excuses". That's part of why I'd prefer to broach these issues on FD, but at the same time, can we ever blame West again (say, in the airport incident), or assign him typical human responsibility? If not,that would suck for both those out to skewer athletes and for the man himself. Does this mean the media has to giggle nervously whenever West says anything the least bit odd or funny?

Also, off of Vince's piece, there's the question of covering sports vs. covering the person. We saw this already with Kobe's trial. It's hard to tell exactly where the line is between "this guy affects the team" and "this guy has a mess of other stuff going on." I wonder, though, why this is suddenly such a problem, when the press routinely doesn't ask athletes shit about their personal life, and keeps plenty of skeletons in the closet. I think it has to do less with the weapons incident than the fact that, presumably, West's issues enter the exact space at which he interacts with the media. This story is as much about the media, their individual relationships with West, and the awkward position both parties are in, as "how to objectively cover an athlete." The arrests are off-court, and we know how to deal with those; basketball-wise, he's just fine. It's really a matter of everyone learning to trust each other, of finding a comfort zone where learning to read Delonte, and being polite, tactful, or tolerant, eventually leads to him fitting into coverage in a logical way. The same way you walk around a seven-foot guy who's always stretching out his bum knee in the middle of the locker room.

Addendum: When I ran this by Vince, he raised the further point of "the team dealing with someone who they very well probably don't want speaking on the record in front of microphones right now." Which, if you think about it, might explain why West was held out of preseason games.

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At 11/04/2009 2:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 11/04/2009 2:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To answer the second paragraph's question ("can we ever blame West again..?"): Yes we can! Yes we can!

West's psychological problems are as relevant as McGrady's injuries or Carter's on-court-lack-of-enthusiasm when we talk about the player. It's part of who he is, so let's put it in the discussion. Delonte's defining characteristic used to be his gigantic herpes sore, now it's the fact that during the summer he got arrested.

The FD ethos (to me) means on court play is as representative of a person as much as their off court actions are. If that makes sense. So finding out how they play and who they are are both valid.

As enlightened fans of basketball and followers of FD, we should be dictating the terms of how West is discussed, not waiting for the rabble at large to figure out their take.

Beat writers and press row will obviously avoid this whole situation, for the simple reason that they lack the ability to talk about it in a worthwhile way. 99.9999% of the daily sports journalism is a poorly written summary of the previous day's game; most of those hacks don't have the intelligence or insight to say anything of note. So they won't even try.

Part of the problem is that in the USA, psychological problems have a stigma, something I really only understood and appreciated recently, as a fan of the late DFW. In a broad sense and just my opinion, it seems like the best way to acknowledge these mental problems is to take off the kids gloves and talk about it like we would anything else.

At 11/04/2009 3:20 PM, Blogger spanish bombs said...

I CONTINUTE to believe that millionaires should stop making stupid thug excuses.

At 11/04/2009 4:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Kevin Allan. If you start treating the man like a ticking time bomb, you've basically set him on course for his next relapse. If you can't broach the subject, than he's not fit to play--it's that simple, and while I think that rule would apply in any workplace, it applies especially in the NBA, where the guy will be endlessly scrutinised (like it or not) and any doofus with a couple hundred dollars to spare can hurl abuse at him from the stands.

To me, though the two are different in all kinds of ways, there is a definite parallel between Delonte West and Zach Greinke of the Kansas City Royals. Greinke flamed out in 2006 for anxiety and depression issues, but came back in 07, and now he's a Cy Young candidate. The depression, by neccessity, became part of the story. It couldn't be hidden--because especially in a professional sports environment, how can you hide it? The level of conversation regarding it might not have exactly been very high--as Kevin Allan observes--but it was at least addressed. To be a professional athlete you have to succeed in a very specific, high-pressure environment--and if you can't, you can't. Maybe if West can't succeed without a total media blackout he just isn't a professional basketball player anymore.

Again, relating this back to baseball--the team I follow is the Toronto Blue Jays. Their soon-to-be highest paid player, locked into a 100+ million dollar contract, is Vernon Wells, and he struggled a lot this year--especially at home, where the fans booed him mercilessly for his off year and his coming millions. When I went to the games I used to get angry at the fans because I knew they were making him anxious (not empirically of course, but the difference between his home and road OPS is significant). But after a while I realised that one of the reasons Wells, or any other player, is paid so much money is that they're expected to perform in exactly those kinds of situations. In other words, if they can't bring themselves out of it, then there is something "lacking" in that player--compared to someone like Alex Rodriguez, who can be pretty much universally hated--everywhere, even in NY--and continue to perform at a high level.

It's true, in some sense, what Spanish Bombs says: you have to be good at your job. That doesn't mean you don't deserve time off to pull yourself together and get everything in order, and it doesn't mean you don't have to prove yourself on the way back, but it does mean you have to show the kind of resiliency that proves you can do it on a regular basis, without kid gloves or training wheels.

At 11/04/2009 4:58 PM, Blogger spanish bombs said...

I am glad that people are taking my important points seriously.

At 11/04/2009 7:18 PM, Blogger Ben said...

Paorta, I think your comment sort of misses the point. Delonte is mentally ill. Saying that he just needs to show "resiliency" and that he has to do it "without kid gloves or training wheels" sort of belittles all mental illness, doesn't it? The reason this is so difficult is because the mentally ill are so easily dismissed as crazy and valueless members of society without us ever stopping to consider these are people whose actions in some cases are literally out of their control.

If I were a writer I would be terrified of this story, too. Psychological disorders are way stigmatized and marginalizing for the people who have them. It would be hard to be fair writing about Delonte's problems given how complicated they probably are and how misunderstood they are sure to be by the general population.

At 11/04/2009 7:27 PM, Blogger FunWithLogic said...

Totally, Ben. This is also exacerbated by the fact that proper diagnoses and perfect remedies are hard to exact, especially when West probably has very different lifestyles during the season versus the summer - what keeps him healthy might change in the other context. Symptoms and levels of discipline (such as taking meds regularly or just being around a good influences) might differ drastically and affect him in different ways.

At 11/04/2009 10:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, Ben, I don't think so. I'm not saying that he shouldn't take time off or take care of himself, or that he doesn't need that time (maybe a lot of time, maybe he'll never get better) to recover, or that his mental illness is a "choice". I'm just saying that once he's back he has to be treated like any other player. There's a good reason for that. Shoals gets at it when he says:

"[..] that would suck for both those out to skewer athletes and for the man himself. Does this mean the media has to giggle nervously whenever West says anything the least bit odd or funny?"

The worst thing you can do with a mentally ill person is put them in a little box where they are no longer held to the same standards as "normal" people. It's the same with any person who has a disability, but maybe more dangerous with someone with a history of mental illness: once you start thinking of them of as anything less than a normal human being, or treating them with different standards, you put them right back in the place that might have caused them to become mentally ill in the first place.

And the rest of what I said is basically just common sense: no NBA team is going to hire West if he's always half an inch from insanity. Saying that he has to stand up to the rigours of NBA campaign isn't writing off mental illness--it's just the way it is. If he can do that with therapy, or meds, or meds and therapy, then fine, if that works. But if he's ever "healed", he has to be healed all the way, or at least healed enough so that he can intelligently take whatever questions/insults/hardships are thrown his way.

At 11/05/2009 1:36 PM, Blogger T.A.N. said...

mental illness in general is fascinating; feels like such a thin line sometimes...

i was mostly in the dark on this subject, and so i'm inclined to think the media is not handling it well. a quick run to delonte's wiki page and nba.com bio reveals absolutely no info/awareness about his illness. if this is mostly a result of the "consensus" decision to censor the info it seems like a reckless decision for all parties. if delonte tore his ACL it would make the report, right? everyone should at least be aware.

i'd think for notation purposes the illness could become a standard byline or correction type note. one-line mention. as appropriate. obviously if the illness figures more prominently as an angle then it deserves more space.

the bigger/broader issue of how to integrate the issue ideologically speaking, or whathaveyou, is like vince's post suggests- a rulebook that needs to be written on the fly. just like the *appropriate* notation above, it has to be felt out, but censoring just augments the stigma with mental illness which seems like the biggest problem in terms of the reportage/journalism etc. aspect.

my biggest problem i think with "justified censorship" in general is that it anticipates the worst and doesn't give any opportunity for the best in people to come out. i know this is because people disappoint time and time again, but better to die honestly or somesuch, no?

unless, like some of the commenters there suggest, cleveland media is all By-Any-Means-Necessary in terms of keeping LeBron, in which case rocking delonte's boat is all downside.

At 11/05/2009 1:53 PM, Blogger walrusoflove said...

Good article by Vince. I like the comparisons to the albert belle situation in the comments. Belle had issues but everyone thought he was intentionally a jerk so no holds barred. Delonte's intentions are perceived as good, therefore its different treatment. The difference is perceived motivation and intention as opposed to outcome....not a fan of kant but this reeks of his 'categorical imperative'. This is also where i take issue with stuff like starbury bashing and wacko-jacko talk (before everyone fell in love again cause he died). Their grip on reality became slippery, and everyone takes pleasure in trying to finish them off. Its a zero-sum-game view of life.

Gordon Gecko was wrong. Compassion is good. And hope all the best for delonte.

"I experienced a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. In gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music."

"I want to be a force for real good. I know that there are bad forces here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the force which is truly good."
- John Coltrane

At 11/06/2009 2:31 AM, Blogger Mercurialblonde said...

I'm interested in how knowing West's story, how easy it is to say "oh he's not cutting as hard to the basket because he's feeling out of it" or "he turned the ball over because he's not able to focus". Like tonight he looked really out of sync. and if you didn't know about his mental illness you would just say he played bad, and was out of sync because of the time off.

It changes the way we watch him on the court. And what's it do to a team's psyche, to have one of their main components so vulnerable and fragile? Do Delonte's problems weigh on Mo Williams mind? Does Anthony Parker feel weird starting ahead of West?

It's a difficult topic to really deal with in sports. Part of why I don't think he should be playing.

My worry is that the Cavs are exploiting him. I heard the only reason he was cleared was because Shaq and Lebron vouched for him. Shouldn't that decision be left up to a therapist and West himself?

It just feels like we're being forced to weigh a man's sanity against the value of a win in sports, and that's a very very uncomfortable thing to deal with, and get into the mode of how important sport must be for the ecstatic to take over.

At 11/06/2009 11:18 AM, Blogger Silas said...

It just really sucks how little discussion there is of mental health in the media. To read the comments people leave on sports sites (not the cream of humanity, I know, but still) the consensus on mental health is: Problems = depression, Advantages = happiness, and that once you make a certain amount of money you become somehow ineligable for mental health problems.

Because fandom is so tied up in idolatry, people just can't handle it when an athelete acknowledges that he has a less than perfect life. What's worse is that they react with anger - as if the athelete has broken some sort of code. It's almost like coming out as gay - "you defy my fantasy about what it means to be an athelete, which means you're a bad person." You're a thug, or a loser, or some other nebulous state of being that explains away being less than perfect.

Finally - While it's easy to jump on the MSM "hacks" for seemingly ignoring the issue, you have to remember what a priveledged - and delicate - position the hacks are in. Getting access to a team depends on a certain level of trust, and if every question in the Cavs postgame conference was about mental illness they'd probably stop taking question pretty fast. That's why it's such a blessing to have a place like this where people are willing to discuss this aspect of sports culture.


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