This makes me look at my playing career differently. I wonder how, if Twitter had existed then, I would have handled the public release of, say, my father’s illness, or pushing back against trade rumors coming from every direction when I played for the Texas Rangers in 2003. I viewed privacy as having the choice of whether to address a personal issue beyond my trusted circle. For public figures today, that choice is considerably more limited.
As fans, we generally welcome these tidbits on the people we admire or enjoy as performers. We see a private side that can explain their drive or make them more relatable. Yet we do not want to go too deeply, given that the domain of their performance is often an escape for us. We don’t want to be bombarded, or even confronted with anything slightly uncomfortable, let alone politicized or polarizing.
So the players can find themselves in a quandary. This social world that can build a brand, even raise an army of followers, is the same social world that is insatiable in its demands and expectations. The athletes are always a walking story, not just their story, but potentially for proximate strangers who can selfie or photo-bomb themselves into prominence.
It’s true that the simplicity of “the game” went out the window long before football players knelt in protest. For years now, fans have been going to stadiums that are more like family entertainment centers, where the game is not enough. When you watch games with or on phones, even if you’re at the ballpark, the pitcher’s windup can be interrupted by breaking news or maybe a reminder to pay your water bill.
Fans from earlier generations reminisce about how it used to be. The times before the advent of social media — less noise, more sport. Just as I, an athlete from an earlier generation, wonder about the repercussions of a contrived reality. The observer interfering with the experiment used to be a concern, but we have moved to an invisible observer being part of the experiment. Now as we split the athlete’s time into thinner tranches, he or she is always on the record. And if we are on top of everything an athlete does, we see the blemishes, real life converging with real time. A consequence of the red camera light being perpetually on.
There is little time for reflection in these environments, so naturally we see everything as is, including some issues we would rather not see when we pop open a beer and tune in to “Monday Night Football.” The lines blur between an athlete’s pain and our escape from the workplace, his spiritual reflections and our politics, her moment in the sun and our daily grind, her sorrow and our happiness. Yet for the athlete, there is little time to find other platforms to express much of anything given the moneyed and self-absorbed nature of the co-opted time in his world. Not unless he wants to miss the window, the news cycle of his moment. If he waits, he or his message runs the risk of irrelevance. That’s the fear.
I would like to just watch the game, too, but the athlete may just want to catch a cab without being passed over, she may just want to be a champion without being compared to a man, he may just want to honor his fallen brother’s service to his country, she may just want to not be judged by what she is wearing, he or she may not want a pronoun attached to them. These elements could be part of what makes them tick in the game we love. Yet we still say, as we always dismissively have, “Just shut up and play.”
From Jackie Robinson to Billie Jean King, many have spoken out since the advent of sports. The benefit of time and patience often rewards us with the true significance of their efforts, even if we disagreed with their approaches or were uncomfortable along the way. These pioneers reminded us that change is always unsettling and that silence changes nothing.
Many of these athletes are now letting us know that we are not listening well, not remembering sport’s longstanding relationship with activism, that in our rush for the bottom line they have been reduced to sound bites and clips, providing little room to address anything in great depth. In turn, we have lost the helpful pauses, periods, ellipses, deep breaths and perspective-granting exercises that allow for collaboration, dissent or dialogue.
We cannot have it both ways. Know everything but learn nothing, see everything but be blinded, count but not allow someone to matter, hear everything but not listen. The players are now responding to our escalating voyeurism with intimacy. Will we reciprocate — or put up a two-way mirror?