J.R. Smith and the Over-Moralization of Athletes and Celebrities

Hey all, I wrote this piece for a Chapel Hill-based online magazine/streetwear brand that I thought might interest you. I'm copying and pasting it here, but you can check out the rest of the website here:

Our biggest success so far was when John Henson rocked one of our "SCAM" shirts, which got picked up by Olbermann and a bunch of blogs:

Here's my article:

J.R. Smith, a 28-year-old shooting guard for the New York Knicks, has had a disastrous season thus far. Just a year after having the best season of his professional career, one that saw him win the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award, Smith is having the worst season of his career, a result of a toxic mixture of bad play on the court with distractions off of it.

On the court, Smith is averaging 11.9 points per game shooting 36.7% from the field. Last season, he averaged 18.1 points per game shooting 42% from the field. Off the court, Smith started the season with a 5-game suspension issued by the league after testing positive on a drug test. He also used his position on the team to get his younger brother Chris, a fringe NBA talent, a roster spot on the Knicks, prompting much derision from the media and the team’s fan base. There have been a myriad of other incidents and distractions along the way.

All of this came to a head in recent weeks after Smith was spotted untying opponents’ shoelaces during free throw attempts. After receiving a warning from the league to stop, Smith was fined $50,000 for jokingly pretending to do it again. Smith became the target of a slew of denunciations, most notably from Adrian Wojnarowski, perhaps the most respected reporter covering the NBA.

In Wojnarowski’s piece about Smith, Wojnarowski called Smith a "fool," a "clown prince," and a "soft, spoiled, suburban jump-shooter" who has an "inflated opinion of himself."

But Wojnarowski’s most vicious attack on Smith in the column came when Wojnarowski linked Smith’s recent troubles to a 2007 reckless driving incident where Smith accidentally caused the death of one of his close friends by blowing through a stop sign and colliding with another vehicle. Smith has claimed that the incident severely affected him and caused him to mature, an idea Wojnarowski mocked. Instead, Wojnarowski used Smith’s recent troubles to assert that Smith is a self-centered and irresponsible person who hasn’t changed since the accident, ignoring the seemingly obvious truth that accidentally causing the death of another human being and untying shoelaces are hardly the same thing.

Wojnarowski’s column is typical of a certain way that athletes and celebrities are often discussed in the world of journalism, where an overarching but ambiguously-defined morality decides who is a hero and who is a villain—who is a God and who is a bum. Most of the time, this type of commentary is vacuous but harmless, like with the case of this week’s controversy over Richard Sherman’s captivating, hyped-up interview with Erin Andrews.

But at other times, these manufactured narratives become shameful unto themselves. There is something grotesque about using a real human tragedy like the one Smith was a part of in 2007 to generate page views. Tying the death of a human being to a bad season of play on a basketball court is disgusting and parasitic.

Narratives that are often silly will always be a part of sports and entertainment coverage—it’s a big part of what makes it fun for fans. Without narratives, sports and pop culture would lose meaning. But it is important to hold on to a sense of context. J.R. Smith has had a bad season of playing basketball—that’s it. It does not make him a horrible person.

I hope Smith isn’t still suffering from any real hardships off the court, because if he is, the media will likely make a spectacle of his self-destruction, as it has with people like Amy Winehouse and Lamar Odom, whose battles with addiction became fodder for page views. Ralph Ellison once wrote about how something similar happened to Charlie Parker, as his struggles with heroin addiction and alcoholism became part of the mythology of his life and death:

While he slowly died (like a man dismembering himself with a dull razor on a spotlighted stage) from the ceaseless conflict from which issued both his art and his destruction, his public reacted as though he were doing much the same thing as those saxophonists who hoot and honk and roll on the floor. In the end he had no private life and his most tragic moments were drained of human significance.

It is important for those of us who care about pop culture to remember the simple humanity of the people we discuss and to treat it seriously. Athletes and celebrities have distinguishing characteristics that allow them to achieve fame, but it does not mean that they do not suffer from the same imperfections as the rest of us. Exploiting their flaws is as immoral as doing it to your immediate neighbors.

Sam Schaefer is a staff writer for Thrill City and a sophomore history and public policy major at UNC. He also works as a senior writer for The Daily Tar Heel and as a DJ for WXYC-Chapel Hill. You can follow him on twitter at @SamSchaefer21.

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