“It’s a Dark Place”: The Disease of Social Media Has Plagued the NBA
Recounting the damage that social media has inflicted— and will continue to inflict— on the NBA
WALKING INTO THE locker room of an NBA team, it’s easy to get lost in the grandeur, the prestige of the professional facility. With machine-like precision, modern locker rooms feature new technologies and almost unnecessarily expensive materials. But at the heart of the locker room, as has been the case for hundreds of years, are the players.
At each perfectly constructed locker, engraved in a shiny gold label, are the players’ names.
And entering a locker room, one would expect loud, open conversations. After all, the term “locker room talk,” originated because of the vile, yet private conversations between teammates.
But today, there has been a distinct change in locker rooms, with something missing that is so unforgettably recognizable, yet its absence doesn’t feel out of place: the silence.
One by one, the players walk in, like members of a marching band, going through the same routine as always, except, the instruments they are playing are at their fingertips, and their routine is to sit at their lockers, headphones plugged in, for hours before their game.
That same night, during the game, the players may look like a team, clapping for each other’s successes, encouraging their teammates, and celebrating a victory, but ultimately, they are not.
Because even if later that night a player posts a photo on social media with the caption “Good Team Win” and multiple teammates respond positively, or if the players pose together after the game in an Instagram post to outwardly show their supposed unity as a team, what people won’t see, and will never see, is the other side of social media.
They won’t see the “team” dinners where six people don’t say a word to one another, because they are glued to their cell phones. They won’t see a game where at halftime a player that is unhappy with his playing time goes straight to social media after being given an impassioned speech from his coach. And they won’t see the unhappiness behind the athlete that is posting a supposedly positive message on Instagram and Twitter.
This is reality, this is the disease of social media plaguing the NBA.
COLE CASHWELL WAS just like any other basketball fan, wanting to tweet at an NBA star, knowing he probably wouldn’t get a response. It was a Sunday night, as well as his birthday, so he decided to try it out.
“@KDTrey5 [Kevin Durant] man I respect the hell outta you,” he typed. “But give me one legitimate reason for leaving okc other than getting a championship.”
He pressed the button to send the tweet, fully expecting it to go unnoticed, with his inquiries into the mind of an NBA superstar never to be answered.
But, he did get a response, and it was from Kevin Durant, himself, with a verified account and 16.9 million followers at the time to back him up.
Soon after, Cashwell realized the magnitude of this encounter, having experienced first-hand the NBA’s largest social media crisis in years.
Immediately after, the criticism towards Durant grew exponentially, with labels like “soft” and “weak” being foisted upon him. Durant, for his part, took responsibility for his actions, but he embraced being the “villain” of the NBA, which eventually took its toll on him.
After already receiving hate from fans all around the world for joining the Golden State Warriors, Durant was now hated for his inability to stay quiet while the whole world slandered his name.
But in his mind, Durant believed a championship, and by extension, a victory over his longtime rival LeBron James would validate everything — even the stress, emotions, and slander he had been taking for months leading up to the playoffs.
In the playoffs, he arrived. The 2017 Finals was arguably the peak of Durant’s abilities, with his unstoppable scoring ability on full display. And though the Cavaliers themselves were an offensive powerhouse that might have won the championship in any other season over the past ten years, this Warriors team and Durant, in particular, were special.
Durant averaged 35.2 points, 8.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists, and was arguably better than LeBron James. But during the summer Durant wasn’t happy, once again seeking something that he could not find.
Steve Nash, a consultant with the Warriors, told Zach Lowe, “[Durant] didn’t have a great summer,” Nash said to Lowe. “He was searching for what it all meant. He thought a championship would change everything and found out it doesn’t. He was not fulfilled.”
So how does this relate back to social media itself? For one, social media was the primary source of criticism for Durant, dating back to his days on the Thunder. Back then, he was told that he would never win a championship, that he could never beat LeBron James, that his career would end up as a failure. But Durant did all of those things, and yet, all he received was more criticism.
While it’s extremely easy to continue to criticize Durant for lashing out at his critics openly and often, it is only human for him to do so. Imagine being in Durant’s position, where every success is marred by another criticism, where every happy moment is replaced with an angry moment.
We can continue to praise athletes like the aforementioned James and Durant’s former MVP teammates Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry for never caving into the pressure and criticism that they all inevitably received and felt on social media at some point, but by doing so, we are approving the inhumane persona of an athlete, when, in reality, it has been made clear for hundreds of years that athletes are still human.
It’s not surprising at all that Durant left the Warriors, seeking a new challenge, given all that had transpired in just three years there. And while this can never be quantified, how much of an impact did social media have on Durant’s career? Because at first, Durant was like every other athlete, putting out pre-programmed responses as if he were a robot in order to avoid criticism, but as soon as Durant was vulnerable, human even, his life was filled with negativity.
Social media was at the heart of this, no longer being a platform where collaboration is rampant. Instead, it has become a place filled with illusions, lies, and fallacies, a place where a vulnerable, real person like Durant doesn’t fit in, and where his honesty stands out from the rest.
AS AMERICA’S MOST progressive sports league, it’s no surprise that the NBA is ahead of its other professional sports leagues in marketing strategies, too. But under David Stern, the NBA was like every other sports league, unwilling to make quick changes, too inclined to rest on its laurels.
Adam Silver’s strategy to create change? Tap into the world’s most advancing industry: technology, and more specifically, social media.
And now, the NBA is head and shoulders above its counterparts in terms of its social media presence. Millions upon millions of people consume the NBA’s content on social media every day, consciously or subconsciously.
Every summer, fans flock to Twitter, hoping to catch the latest report from Adrian Wojnarowski or to see the latest from their NBA team. But on the other side of this spectacle, is, once again, the players.
Having a social media presence is almost a prerequisite for an NBA player; but, for as much judgment as they feel during the NBA Combine, with hundreds of people watching them shoot, dribble, and pass, they are judged, critiqued, and scrutinized infinitely more times on social media. And worst of all, the harassment on social media is hidden under the guise of a collaborative environment that fosters socializing.
It’s obvious why social media is appealing to professional athletes: they can choose what goes on their page, and as a result, they somewhat control the perception of themselves. Yet, doing so also opens them to the harsh reality of unfiltered human opinion.
While reaching a million followers and getting hundreds of thousands of likes every post, and having multiple verified celebrities commenting under posts is extremely appealing, ultimately, the dopamine hit and instant gratification of social media causes more harm than good.
Ever wonder why, in just the past three seasons, an unprecedented number of NBA players have spoken out about their anxiety and unhappiness? Or, why Adam Silver is referring to large masses of NBA players as incredibly unhappy when representing the NBA at the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference? It all traces back to one thing, and it’s the object that every NBA player has at their fingertips — their phones and social media.
Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, and Kelly Oubre Jr. have also spoken about their personal struggles in recent years. Yet, while their admissions are a huge victory in that it boosts the confidence of people who feel pressured into closeting their anxiety, real progress has not been made in stopping the true cause of this anxiety: social media.
It is social media that has the most raw, pure, and vile opinions of humans, and people’s opinions have been proven time and again to be man’s greatest fear. “FOPO” (Fear of People’s Opinions) as it is sometimes referred to as, is the primary cause of anxiety for today’s modern human, especially with more people feeling empowered to voice any opinion, whether it be hateful or not.
Said Oubre, who has nearly 1 million followers and a loyal legion of fans online, “It’s a generational thing. I feel like we’re too dependent on the cellphones and the social media to hype our egos and make us feel good when, at the end of the day, that comes from yourself.”
After a few more ideas about social media, Oubre summed up his thoughts. “It’s just a crutch, honestly. I call it the ‘SMD’ — the social media disease.”
AS A 14 year NBA veteran, J.J. Redick has seen it all.
From an unlikely Finals run with the Magic to being a core piece of the “Lob City” L.A. Clippers and most recently being a starter and veteran presence for the young Philadelphia 76ers, Redick’s experience has made him a respected voice around the league.
But last summer, Redick made a drastic change to his life. He had contemplated making this change for a while, but he had restrained from doing so for a variety of reasons. Finally, he decided to it.
Within minutes, Redick erased his social media presence, no longer having his formerly verified Instagram and Twitter accounts. He even deleted his private, family-and-friends only Instagram account.
This decision was made even more interesting by Redick’s place on the team. At ages 34–35, he was among the oldest members of the Sixers, and it was his job to mentor young stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. In direct contrast with Redick, both Simmons and Embiid were social media stars.
Embiid, in particular, was known for his proclivity to blast other NBA players on his Instagram and Twitter accounts, much to the delight of his nearly 4 million followers. Simmons, though more quiet and reserved than Embiid, actually has more followers, with 4.6 million as of today.
But why is it that Redick felt compelled to pull the plug and remove himself from the cycle of social media? His answer was revealing.
“It’s a dark place,” he said, speaking Tom Haberstroh. “It’s not a healthy place. It’s not real.” He added, “It’s just this cycle of anger and validation and tribalism. It’s scary, man.”
His words align with what other players have taken issue with regarding social media, especially the idea that it is an illusion and that it causes more anger than anything else. And as an older player around the league, someone who has seen the first smartphone evolve until today, where we are at the advent of technology, Redick’s words should be thought-provoking.
So while he absolutely fit onto the Sixers team, and wasn’t an old veteran who rambled about the issues of the new generation, his words needed to be heeded cautiously. And for people like Embiid, who tend to be a bit…reckless on social media, it is important to tread cautiously on social media.
The Sixers, for their part, are among the leaders among the NBA in restricting cell phone and social media usage, often implementing techniques to force players into having real human connections, away from their phones. At team dinners and other activities, they have previously used “phone bags” as a method of restricting cell phone usage, which was wise given the team’s popularity around the league combined with their previously youthful roster.
So after all that Redick has experienced, what were his final thoughts on social media?
“Truthfully,” he confided with Haberstroh, “it’s a problem.”
WITH TODAY’S ATHLETE being more glorified than ever before, this issue may never end. And with technology still evolving, there is no certainty in telling what the future of social media will be. What is for certain, however, is that today’s athletes have to deal with more pressure than their predecessors, almost exclusively due to the rise of social media.
The problem is that social media, for all of its downfalls, is still incredibly powerful, being a multi-million or billion-dollar industry, with no end in sight.
The aforementioned Durant, Love, and DeRozan have all expressed dismay, whether it be due to anxiety or backlash, yet all of them have still have social media, likely for financial reasons.
The great irony in social media is in its name; its purpose has come to contradict the very ideas that it was founded upon. No longer is it a place of collaboration, a place to meet new people, or a place to gain a positive state of mind. Now, it’s a place of hate, anger, and anxiety, a place where people have freedom and immunity to express the most unfiltered and vile ideas of the human mind.
As for J.J. Redick, the last feature of this piece and the hero who was willing to defy and condemn social media? Well, this summer, in addition to leaving the Sixers for another young, up and coming team, the New Orleans Pelicans, Redick returned to social media this year, with 23.3 thousand followers on Instagram as of today.
And whether it be coincidence or not, Redick is now in the midst of his worst season in years.
All stats via Basketball Reference
First Image: Link