Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Gilbert Arenas and Hype

Every so often I like to do a straightforward comparison of two news stories, and here’s one that pops out, sports-wise: Gilbert Arenas and the arrested Tennessee basketball players.

Both stories involve basketball players with weaponry, yet only one has aroused national attention. And it’s always interesting to speculate why that’s true. There are a few different options:
a) Luck
b) One Story More Sensational Than The Other
c) “Brand”
Ultimately I think all three elements may play a part. People rarely take luck into account, either in their day-to-day lives or the media generally, but it’s true: you can find many seemingly-sensational stories which simply withered. And it’s also true that the Arenas story is slightly more sensational, in that Arenas allegedly threatened Crittendon with a weapon (at least in the early version of the story).

But I don’t think it explains the entire difference in attention. What it comes down to is what you might call “brand” or you might call “the associations that people have with each league.”

People still view the NCAA as being a place of pure amateurs, hustling for the love of the game and finding time for school; the NBA is the league of lazy, drug-addled criminals who play selfish and showboat up and down the court. (E.g. the alleged lack of fundamentals that NBA players have; their alleged lack of defense, etc. etc.) So when a story like the two above breaks, the blame goes to the NBA generally (for Arenas) or to Tennessee specifically (for the basketball players.)

Thinking about the matter shows the impression to be wrong. The NCAA has always had many, many cheaters; it does a poor job graduating its athletes, generally speaking; its play often devolves into jacked three-pointers by underdogs hoping to get a pelt on the wall at the expense of fun basketball. So the NCAA’s sins implicate the very heart of its mission. The NBA, meanwhile, has never claimed to be anything but a place where professional basketball players play.

The NBA, of course, is predominantly full of former college players. Why, then, are they criminals and selfish players? Is there some sort of magical alchemy that occurs that changes former gritty, hustling players into selfish jerks upon entrance to the NBA? Of course not.

As far as I know, no one has compared the criminality of leagues substantively, but surely they’re comparable. So the impressions are pretty much b.s. Mostly, it’s based on allowing impressions to substitute for actual thinking. And that’s not necessarily terrible. For example, I’m under the impression that hockey and Twilight are terrible, and I’m sure it’s not a national tragedy that I haven’t deprived myself of these (possibly wonderful) things.

It is, however, a problem when impressions or hype get to substitute for reality or influence reality itself. Which is what’s happening, to a small degree, here. And obviously this happens more frequently and importantly with other matters (Underpants Bomber!). That’s life, of course, but it doesn’t make it right.

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