Last week NBA commissioner Adam Silver made news at MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference for a very unexpected reason — he described many NBA basketball players as “truly unhappy.”
Yes, I know, it’s exactly at this point that multiple readers will raise an objection. These players are rich. They’re famous. And they’re rich and famous for playing a game. Their unhappiness is a sign of self-absorption and ungratefulness. They’ve lost touch with the real struggles of working Americans. They need to grow up, appreciate their immense blessings, and have fun.
At least, that was Charles Barkley’s response. He was blunt:
That’s probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard Adam say. Listen, these guys are making 20, 30, 40 million dollars a year, they work 6–7 months a year, stay at the best hotels in the world, they ain’t got no problems. That’s total bogus.
Far be it from me to disagree with Sir Charles (or with objecting readers), but I think there is something truly legitimate in the NBA happiness crisis, something that connects deeply with human nature and has effects far beyond professional basketball.
It’s simply this — constant personal criticism wounds the human spirit.
Silver talked about multiple reasons for NBA unhappiness (players, he argues, are far lonelier than we realize), but he also brought up the atmosphere of “anxiety,” part of which he argues is a “direct result of social media.” This is hardly the first time we’ve heard about the impact of social media on NBA players. Pay any attention to the league, and at some point you’ll hear knowledgeable people say something like, “The players read their mentions.”
In other words, they tend to dive into the cesspool of Instagram comments and Twitter replies. Like almost every other human being on social media, they follow the rumors, they read the insults, and sometimes they even get so angry they create burner accounts to defend themselves online.
But it’s not just players who read their mentions. It’s people. Absent an enormous amount of hard-won self-discipline, most people can’t seem to help but read what other say about them. If you know somebody is writing about you (much less doing so in plain sight on your own social-media pages), it takes great restraint to look away. And when you look, the attacks can hurt. Spend any time online, and you’ll run across folks from virtually every walk of life who can share a story about how a social-media dragging hurt them (or a friend or a family member) deeply.
Moreover, even the process of building the necessary callouses to interact online has a cost. There are people who tell me that I’m harsher in person than I used to be — more indifferent to criticism and more withering when I do engage. I fear they’re right, and I worry that’s a natural effect of reading and (sometimes) responding to constant, angry critique.
On the one hand, these players live a dream. On the other hand, there are always, always a multiplicity of voices telling them that they’re trash, that they’re terrible people, and hoping that they’ll fail. It’s just human nature to allow mockery to overwhelm even an avalanche of love and admiration. If you go to dinner and one person yells at you, that can render the meal painful even if everyone else expresses support. And unlike the days when you could just flip off the television or not pick up the paper, those personal insults are posted often in direct response to your own (often entirely innocuous) posts and messages.
At the same time, when they go out, these players are immediately surrounded by a citizens’ army of impromptu reporters — hoping to record a celebrity (and maybe catch a misstep) in living color and high-definition. Social media are their way to directly reach their fans. It’s also the way that critics can directly reach — and personally wound — the players.
Critique can build character, no question. Omnipresent mockery, by contrast, rarely yields good fruit. NBA players enjoy many blessings, but they’re human beings, and their loneliness and anxiety should serve as yet another wake-up call that there is something deeply broken about the way we communicate with each other. A nation without grace hurts its citizens, and no amount of money can necessarily immunize us from the costs of human scorn.