Kevin Durant and the uneasy relationship between athletes and the media
Did the Warriors’ soon-to-be free agent have good reason to call out critics?
Kevin Durant’s brief and contentious Wednesday news conference, where he decried what he sees as baseless speculation about his future, has been met with some unsurprising backlash from the members of the same basketball press that he admonished. Yes, Durant’s jabs to “grow up” were deserving of criticism. But columnists and commentators who took KD to task failed to acknowledge that Durant’s reaction was not a byproduct of just his own fragility. It was also a reasonable response to the material impact, caused by writers and pundits, on the climate around his life.
Journalists/media (a class I have recently entered) mostly see themselves as unbiased spectators who just report the facts, and they take an exception to the idea of them unduly influencing the topics they cover. But their words have power in the lives of the people they cover, which is a service when their words are facts unearthed through diligent reporting (like the Dallas Mavericks scandal). But speculation based on hearsay and opinion is often also the job for some in the media, including me. And no matter the lengths to which media members go to communicate the flimsy basis of a thought they’ve shared, viewers digest the opinion just as they would a fact. Which can create, for a player like Durant, an inescapable presence that permeates even the most sacred of all sanctuaries, the locker room.
Durant’s early season on-court confrontation with teammate Draymond Green, which led to the locker room argument where Green reportedly called Durant a “b—-” and said, “We don’t need you. We won without you. Leave,” might have been inevitable. But the constant speculation made it a presence that couldn’t be ignored. And that news was a perfect plot point to fuel this season-long drama, which is moot until Durant’s contract expires at the end of the season. But a one-episode reality show is not much fun.
Anthony Davis’ recent trade request through Rich Paul, an agent he shares with LeBron James, combined with the belief that James is the Los Angeles Lakers’ shadow general manager, set off an avalanche of speculation and reporting that included the names of almost all Lakers players in different potential trades. Surely, for those world-class basketball players, being inundated daily with rumors and questions that characterize them as nothing more than James’ trade bait had a deleterious effect, manifesting itself in a 42-point loss to the Indiana Pacers and a picture that says it all:
Wobvestigation: LeBron at the end of the Lakers bench pic.twitter.com/g43fkq8JYK
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) February 6, 2019
When discussing consequential societal issues, the media’s ability to nudge public thought is an accepted phenomenon. But, on the minor scale of sports, we rarely acknowledge that media coverage sets the agenda for the public. And public sentiment is always a factor in the lives and decisions of power brokers in sports. As a former professional athlete, I am familiar with receiving the ire of a fan base after being incorrectly blamed by a local writer for a late-game mistake. I’ve also been celebrated as a result of media praise that my play didn’t warrant.
And the same can be said for Durant, when he quietly signed an extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder and became basketball’s favorite son in the wake of “The Decision” by James to leave Cleveland for Miami. He didn’t ask for that anymore than he asked for this. But he is financially benefiting from it, which is the soapbox from which many are critical of Durant.
And that’s the crux of it all. Durant and media members are similarly situated in this ecosystem. The media have a job to do: produce content that’s responsive and engaging to a constituency composed of a fan base whose level of interest drives the revenue that players rely on to support the league that allows them to play a game for a living. It’s all circle of life. You can’t have one part of this ecosystem without the other. Can’t have flowers without bees.
Durant is bright enough to understand the ecosystem, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t allowed to complain about the buzzing.
And to those who see this as evidence of Durant as a uniquely sensitive athlete, it’s actually the opposite. Most athletes would feel the same way as Durant in the same circumstance, but somewhere along the line many choose to conform and quiet the critics. Durant knew that reprimanding the media was just going to intensify the criticism, yet he did it, giving voice to the sentiments of athletes everywhere and serving criticism to the critics.