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Your Problematic Bae – Bill Simmons Finally Gets (Most of) It
Bill Simmons and Chris Ryan co-hosted an episode of The Ringer NBA Show on June 15 where they chopped up the NBA Finals, LeBron James’s performance, Simmons’s recent conversation with Kevin Durant on his own podcast, and other offseason subplots to look forward to.
What was especially refreshing in the episode was to see Bill and Chris re-litigate their reactions to LeBron leaving Cleveland in 2010 after watching Kevin Durant leave Oklahoma City last year. Simmons admitted he had been overly critical of James’s decision seven years ago. By his own admission, 2010 Bill still thought of goings-on in the NBA with more of a fan’s perspective. In the intervening years, he’s worked on TV with a handful of former players, and has had tons of interaction with current and former players through his work with ESPN, Grantland, and The Ringer. The years have widened his perspective, and it’s now easier for him to think about why a superstar like Kevin Durant would leave a good team to join a great team. What he and Ryan came around to was the idea that location and team culture are deciding factors when players jump ship. Simmons says, “I think it’s a real thing that people just discount. They’re looking at it like, the Warriors, he’s going to a 73-win team. I really feel like, if I had to rank, I don’t know the order, but I would say either one or two, would be new city and then style of basketball.”
Of course those are the primary reasons why any player would change teams. It’s strange to me that it would take seven years for a sports writer to realize that a player doesn’t leave their team because of a character defect. To fail to acknowledge the real reasons why players change teams is to deny their agency, and to indulge in a dangerously naïve kind of sports fandom. Dangerous because it can lead to jersey-burning riots and throwing drinks at players when they return to your hometown wearing different colors. And naïve because basketball is an entertainment industry wherein athletes interact with other millionaires and billionaires, many of whom influence the players to approach their opportunities the same way a whiz kid at Google or Snapchat or CAA might: you don’t stay in the exact same company forever. You find new challenges. You move to new cities. You make new friends. You try to have a well-rounded life.
But it’s more than fair that we start seeing players as thinking, feeling human beings who make career choices based both on professional and lifestyle criteria. So, welcome to the club, Bill.
But before I can grant full membership in that club, there’s this language of ownership problem Simmons runs into, and it’s connected to race in unconscious ways, and it has niggled me for years as a fan of his. When Simmons talks about players in relation to the teams they play for, or the teams that might trade their contract for other contracts or cash considerations, he tends to discuss black players as chattel, and white players as employees in a contract-based business. This isn’t 100 percent of the time, but it happens often enough to concern me. Even in the episode in question, when Bill and Chris are discussing how Cleveland spent too much money on recruiting post-prime players to play with LeBron James, he says, “they had Szczerbiak’s contract.” Wally Szczerbiak is a white player from Spain. Ten minutes later, Simmons is talking about the moves Golden State made, including “settling” for Andre Iguodala, and says, “they got him at a great price.” Like, dude, do you not hear yourself? Is this a Boston thing? This is one of those things that once you notice it the first time, you’ll hear it regularly, and it’s a real stain on the experience of listening to Simmons and Ryan, two of my favorite writers and podcasters, go in on a subject that interests me.
The Rose Ahead – The Bachelorette’s Race Problem
In some sense, we shouldn’t even talk about Lee Garrett, a contestant on ABC’s The Bachelorette who, as Variety and other outlets have reported, tweeted racist messages in 2015 and 2016 before being selected to appear on the show. We shouldn’t talk about this garden variety troll who tells an over-stressed black contestant on the show that he has “so much potential” before revealing to the camera in a confessional that nothing makes him happier than smiling at an angry man and watching him become angrier. We shouldn’t talk about Lee because he’ll be gone from the show by next week, probably. We shouldn’t talk about him because Rachel Lindsay, the first black Bachelorette, has demonstrated and will likely continue to demonstrate near-impossible levels of class and self-restraint when dealing with problematic contestants.
But we will. I’m sure the Tennessee troll will consume a lot of the oxygen in the cultural criticism landscape over the next week, as will Rachel’s handling of the problems he creates. It’s good for television that this is happening, especially in the context of reality television, and on a show that will be watched live by at least six million people. But I got heated watching the preview for the upcoming episode. Not because of Lee’s behavior. I grew up online and am mostly inoculated against trolls. But because Rachel, the obvious focal point of the show, must maintain this high-wire act of being the perfect first black Bachelorette. Just like Wonder Woman had to be the perfect superhero movie. And films like Moonlight and Get Out had to be perfect entries in their respective genres. And Obama had to be—you get it.
I’m looking forward to the day when there have been enough black and brown Bachelorettes and enough mainstream queer films and racially diverse social thrillers that we don’t demand perfection of any of them. That we get to meet them on their own terms and love what they do right and screw our faces up at what they get wrong.
But in the meantime, I’ll stay woke.