Is the NBA at a Cultural Crossroads?

The disconnect between today’s professional athlete, media, and fanbase

Photo by Miltiadis Fragkidis on Unsplash

It’s an age-old question that faces each pro sport in every era: How in tune are the current athletes with the history, culture, and future of their sport?

We know the fans are all in. Rooting for their favorite teams and players. No matter the success or failure of those organizations. Fans are like shareholders, investing capital into the enterprise. Tickets, merchandise, and media packages. All while embracing the past, present, and future of the sport.

Are TV ratings down? Viewership sliding? Eyeballs at an all-time low? Since streaming, handheld devices, and online gambling have entered the fold, it’s difficult to gauge the numbers since these aren’t computed in the ratings. Yet, the level of interest and personal engagement appears at an all-time high.

When an NBA player comes across as a person who doesn’t seem to care about where the league has been, how it got here, and where it’s going doesn’t concern him, the fan base grows resentful. Calling that player out for being selfish.

In all fairness, the pro athlete, despite the impression of self-centered and absorbed, may not be. Pro athletes, by nature, are outliers in their own right. It’s easy for society to tag and assign outlier to the stars and legends past of the NBA, but every pro player is an outlier.

We know pro athletes are wired differently. They’re in the here and now. Locked in the present moments. It’s in their process as professionals as well as their DNA to exhibit ultimate focus.

The dynamic between social media, the players, and the fans is a new one. At no point in our social and cultural history have we witnessed such an impact, all through today’s digital lifestyle.

All of this feeds into the current climate. Today’s athlete, wired with traditional traits, is a different and unique person. We’re also witnessing the pro athlete as a separate brand and entity.

Through this prism, we can’t fault them, nor shouldn’t. The pro athlete is conditioned for this environment. Deep down, they may care about the history and lineage of the league. The great players who came before them.

However, some may not, and this disturbs the fans. There’s a love it or leave it from the supporters. More than a slogan — it’s a belief system. No different from the culture and climate we see in our political and religious rallies.

When pro athletes give off a smug, entitled, and self-absorbed vibe, it turns off the fans. If you don’t care about it, why should we?

Fans watch and follow how players react, respond, and carry themselves. By nature, fans are fickle creatures. Once a player steps over that proverbial line, they’re villainized. If it’s a more serious offense in their eyes, the player is demonized.

Photo by Ramiro Pianarosa on Unsplash

I’m not suggesting that today’s baller is any less or more skilled than those of previous generations, decades, and eras. The MJ versus LeBron debate will go on for years.

The NBA, our sports culture, and society have evolved. The NBA has become a position-less game while moving from the inside to the outside. From the boards and perimeter to the wings. It’s new and different. Better or worse is subjective.

Back in the 80s and ’90s, the NBA was stacked with upper-echelon talent. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Dominique Wilkins, Doctor J, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Isiah Thomas, Patrick Ewing, and Akeem Olajuwon. All-time players, without even naming MJ. There were many more as well.

The idea of any of these guys teaming up to win an NBA title would sink the league. Fans would turn away in droves, thinking the game was rigged. Unless they were acquired in a trade, the idea of pairing up would be blasphemous.

While in the 2020 Orlando Bubble, the NBA contemplated walking out on the season during the George Floyd tragedy. In response, the fans empathized. As citizens, they shared their grief.

There’s a part of us that yearns for sports to be separate. To remain that bastion and outlet of escape. Yet we understand and support the pro athlete that decides to skip and sit out their scheduled game as an act of reflection or protest.

When the athlete seems or is viewed to take advantage of their situation and privilege, the fans grumble. And rightfully so. It’s the fans’ dollars paying the freight. At the end of the day, it’s their money, time, and attention that has brought pro sports to where it is.

We all know and come to understand, the fan is taken advantage of and taken for granted. Pro sports are an open and free market. If the individual feels slighted, they’re free to check out and divert their time, energy, and dollars somewhere else.

There is robust debate amongst TV panels on pre and post-game shows. Call-in sports, and talk radio. Podcasts, blogs, and columns. How engaged and accountable should today’s athletes be? Do they owe the media and the fans an answer?

The next CBA between the players association and the league might address this. That said, the fans will decide. Which ones are willing to hang around. Buying tickets and merchandise aren’t cheap. The fans who feel betrayed and not cared about will opt-out for something else.

Currently, the NBA is having its best parody and competitive spirit in years. For the past three seasons, the NBA has enjoyed more and more teams entering the fold with a legitimate chance to win a league title.

Going back decades, the NBA has traditionally been a front-loaded league. A few underdogs have advanced through the playoff brackets now and then, but never enough to shock the sports world.

The ’99 Knicks reached the NBA Finals as an eighth seed. Just last year, the Miami Heat reached the Finals as a fifth. Both teams lost. Outside of these two over-reaching runs, the NBA is known to have one of the top three seeds in either conference reach the NBA Finals almost every year. A trend that dates back to the 70s.

It’s easy to blame the NBA commissioner, the owners, the players, and the various media. What about the expectations and values of the fans?

Let’s not forget the ages of the players. Most of the NBA rookies and second-year pros are college-age players. Many have chosen to leave the NCAA and join the NBA. These young men are not only developing as players but humans as well, both physically and emotionally.

The constants that have been in place all along remain. Fans will attend the games to cheer and be entertained. They’ll follow their favorite teams and players on social media.

In turn, the professional athlete will treat it differently — as an occupation and livelihood. Since it is, and at any given moment, it could be taken away.

Maybe time itself will provide the answers. As a society, we’re changing and evolving in a new direction. In essence, the answers may not be available since we’re still in the questions phase.

Fiction and nonfiction: Background actor and day player:

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