Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Authenticity Trap

It can be good when athletes use their power to push for causes dear to them. But what happens when we learn too much?
July 27, 2020
The Authenticity Trap
TOPSHOT - This picture taken on October 15, 2019, shows a basketball thrown by a protester before it hits a poster of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam at the Southorn Playground in Hong Kong during a rally in support of NBA basketball Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and against comments made by Lakers superstar LeBron James. - US basketball superstar LeBron James on October 14, 2019, has sharply criticised a Houston Rockets executive for angering China with a tweet supporting protesters in Hong Kong, saying the executive was "misinformed" and should have kept his mouth shut. (Photo by Anthony WALLACE / AFP) (Photo by ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s no secret that we now live in an age of authenticity. Self-help gurus and TED Talk heroes like Brené Brown have emphasized the importance of openness and vulnerability. We must always be ourselves, we are told, and social media only amplifies this necessity. Everyone knows someone who volunteers far too much information on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Sometimes it’s funny and harmless; other times it can cause real problems among friends and family.

But this tendency isn’t limited to those we know and those to whom we are related. Social media has made it possible to know anything about anyone, including our heroes in sports and entertainment. And here’s where the age of authenticity is starting to reach some limits: we’re seeing the tension between the authenticity that our insta-culture provides, and the perception of popular figures we revere.

For example, look at the National Basketball Association. NBA players have tremendous platforms. In keeping with the old noblesse oblige sensibility, players ought to speak out about important issues when they can. With both the platform and the resources to enact social change, professional athletes are in a unique position to make an impact in their hometowns, the cities they play, and the nation at large. Their passion and their own life experiences gives their words added weight. But expecting—practically demanding—our heroes to have an opinion on every topic of social justice only opens them up to charges of hypocrisy when conflicts inevitably arise.

The controversy over the NBA’s relationship with China springs to mind. When Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey spoke in defense of Hong Kong earlier this year, it set off a firestorm. Players and coaches alike—normally quite outspoken in the age of Trump—found themselves mute at the prospect of pushing back against Chinese messaging. Lebron James even went so far as to say that Morey wasn’t properly educated on the subject, which left fans wondering why James would say such a thing if he had clear knowledge of China’s treatment of Hong Kong or its Uighur population. And if James did say that with full awareness, his statement suggests a staggering level of hypocrisy, a willingness to turn a blind eye to evil in the hopes of pocketing a few extra dollars.

The second problem is one of prudence. In other words, when and where is it appropriate for public figures to address public problems? There are no easy answers here. Fans come to sports for a variety of reasons, but political enlightenment is rarely at the top of the list. I may (or may not) agree with a sports figure for any number of reasons, but the only reason they have my ear is because they represent a team—an institution—for which I care deeply. This isn’t an argument to “shut up and play,” but instead for recognizing that the authenticity that inspires public commentary has to be restrained by fidelity to the institution that provided the platform.

There is another, more serious problem with a culture that demands full transparency on the part of public figures: we don’t always know what we’re going to get. We assume that athletes are going to engage in safe, bourgeois sentimentality, but that is not always the case. When you create an open forum for expression, you get some opinions that push the bounds of good taste. Take the case of Desean Jackson, one of the most consistent wide receivers in the NFL over the last decade. In an Instagram post earlier this month, Jackson posted a quote widely misattributed to Adolf Hitler, one full of anti-Semitism.

The quote was, in part, a problem for the reason I laid out earlier: sports fans want to discuss sports. Instead of commentators discussing Jackson’s role in the Eagles’ offense, his contract, his relationship with his coach and quarterback, they’re discussing whether or not Jackson should have said this thing.

Then there is the deeper problem of the thing itself. Jackson’s comments were deeply and obviously anti-Semitic, so the discussion isn’t over an athlete dabbling in politics. Now we’re addressing an athlete saying straightforwardly bigoted things. When other athletes and some commentators jumped to Jackson’s defense, the whole matter became even grosser, because we were past the point of defending an athlete’s right to speak. We were listening to revered sports legends like Shannon Sharpe carrying water for an open bigot like Louis Farrakhan while other athletes repeated the same anti-Semitic tropes. It was disgusting, and it would be easy to forgive someone who lost temporary interest in the sport they normally enjoy. And in case anyone thinks I’m picking on Jackson, one look at the Twitter feed of Aubrey Huff or Curt Schilling really takes the shine off two legendary baseball players.

There’s a risk here for everyone involved. Fans clearly enjoy some level of authenticity from their favorite players, and public opinion has shifted dramatically in favor of the racial justice that many athletes advocate, at least in part because of their advocacy. The Jackson story highlights a tradeoff: The more authenticity we demand from athletes, the more we’re going to get—and we may not always like what we find.

A healthy society needs robust debate from people who are free to be themselves. It also needs shared public spaces that are, at times, free of debate. Sports, until relatively recently, remained the last such bastion in American life. While we might welcome the newfound openness of players and coaches to discuss and confront problems in society, we may find that a look behind the curtain presents an ugly picture we would rather not confront.

It would take a lot for me to lose interest in University of Alabama sports or Atlanta Braves baseball or New Orleans Saints football. Those roots run deep, and they won’t be cut off by any one player. Still, there are lines that can be crossed, and if representatives of a team—players or coaches—were persistent in bigotry or conspiracy, it could inspire a slow trickle of apathy that in time turns into complete disinterestedness. Calling balls and strikes is hard enough; I’m not sure we want to add adjudicating the lines of discourse to the world of sports.

Matthew Stokes

Matthew Stokes is a writer and college instructor from Birmingham, Alabama. His work has appeared in the Alabama Daily News, the University Bookman, and the Gospel Coalition. Follow him on Twitter: @yellingstopal.