By Terry Lyons, Digital Sports Desk’s Editor-in-Chief
BOSTON – Miss Nadal taught valuable lessons to baby-boomers in the Kindergarten class at The Gallow School in 1967. One of them, surely borne not long after Alexander Graham Bell founded the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in 1885, was the game of “Telephone.”
That’s when Miss Nadal lined up the entire class and whispered a short story into the ears of one child, then explained that each child was required to pass that story along the line until some 50 kids later, she met the child on the other end of the line to hear exactly what was passed along “the telephone line.”
Sports reporting, in the year 2019, might learn a lesson from Miss Nadal and here’s why:
You see, there’s this great sports seminar held every March in Boston, Massachusetts. It’s tagged as “Dork-a-Palooza” by its founders, Daryl Morey and Jessica Gelman who gladly embraced the moniker after multi-media guru Bill Simmons coined the phrase many years ago as he described the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (#SSAC2019).
Each March, at the hand of Morey and Gelman, the Sloan Business School faculty and MBA candidates, a two-day seminar (sponsored by ESPN) brings 3,500 attendees to Boston from some 44 of the formerly United States along with brilliant minds from 33 countries and territories to discuss important trends in the sports world. Some 200+ academic institutions utilize the weekend as a Super Bowl of Sports Analytics, sending faculty and hosting business school reunions.
It’s fabulous, plain and simple.
One of the highlight’s of the 2019 adaptation of SSAC was a one-on-one interview with Simmons questioning NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. As are Morey, Gelman and a few of their colleagues, cohorts and successors, the NBA’s CEO is sort of a cult-figure at “Sloan.” He has risen the ranks, embraced analytics at its earliest infiltration into the League and has never disappointed anyone when he sits for some conversation each year, and that ranks from trading wits with Malcolm Gladwell to stooping quite a bit lower on the IQ spectrum to chat with Simmons, he of lengthy but engaging columns at Digital City Boston to even lengthier and often hysterical posts as “The Sports Guy” at ESPN (dot) com to brilliance with ESPN’s 30-for-30 franchise to Grantland to HBO to The Ringer.
Although Simmons worked more jobs than Chucky Brown has old NBA jerseys, the media vagabond did a great job at this year’s one-on-one discussion, and Commissioner Silver opened up on certain subjects that wouldn’t come up at an NBA All-Star Weekend or NBA Finals “State of the NBA” address in a million years.
The topic: The state of mind and mental health of an NBA player.
*It is here, and maybe at the request of ol’ Miss Nadal, we highly recommend you take time and watch the entire Silver-Simmons interview. As you might guess, the online stories and snippets being reported these past few days might read and resonate quite differently than those written by those who watched Silver say them in context of the entire interview. It is embedded above (42 analytics makes you click through to their Youtube landing page) but can also be found by visiting: HERE
A few minutes after Silver left the stage at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center, the game of telephone began in earnest, first with Tweets from the audience, clipping the Commissioner’s most interesting comments.
Soon after, the Twitterverse chimed in, some from ill-informed basketball fans looking to pick fights or cast their animosity against professional basketball players who earn more money in a night than many can ever imagine making in 10 years. In other cases, the Tweets were created by NBA media, looking to join the fray and grab some page views.
I can’t say that any of the commentary was 100% wrong. Silver’s comments, stated in public and recorded, were (and are still now) fair game. People are free to slice and dice it. That’s no longer against the rules of society nor journalism. That, indeed, is one of the problems being surfaced.
But, I write to say, later in the day – long after Silver headed back to the NBA league offices in New York – when I read a Boston (dot) com headline that highlighted “Jealousy” of NBA players (it was later changed to its current ‘mental health,’ by the way), I thought to myself, “Wow, I must’ve missed that!”
“When I meet with them, what surprises me is that they’re truly unhappy,’’ Silver told The Ringer’s Bill Simmons during an hour-long panel discussion at the 13th annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Friday afternoon. “A lot of these young men are generally unhappy.’’
While fans might presume players are hanging out and devising ambitious plans so that they can play on the same team, Silver stressed that’s hardly the case.
Boston (dot) com
“I think it’s less calculated than a lot of people think,’’ he said. “The reality is that most don’t want to play together. There’s enormous jealousy amongst our players.’’
I asked a colleague what he thought and the response was, “he didn’t say that,” and at that moment, it was time to do some reporting and double check.
A 20-second time-out is needed here, because, Silver “did” say it. And, Nicole Yang in Boston (dot) com was 100% accurate in her work, no question. It’s just that she simply missed the point.
With the brush fire set by Boston (dot) com – (again, they were accurate) – and the random Twitter fuel adding to the fire, the “telephone line” made its way to the one and only Charles Barkley via ESPN “Get Up” with Mike Greenberg.
In essence, Barkley said that is “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard Adam say” and that NBA players have it easy and should stop complaining.
“[Adam’s] a great guy, but that’s the stupidest thing I might have heard any commissioner say,” Barkley told host Mike Greenberg. “These guys are making $20, $30, $40 million a year, they work six or seven months a year, stay at the best hotels in the world. They ain’t got no problems. That’s total bogus.”
And, straight down the telephone line it goes, as the sports world shakes its head and only listens to what Chuck thinks, not what Silver and Simmons actually discussed.
Where do we go from this point?
Let’s do it the old-fashioned way and ask Adam Silver what he meant, huh? Here’s a brief Q&A I conducted 48 hours after the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference:
On the loneliness issue:
Q – Do you think there’s been drastic changes in the past 10 years?
Silver: “I don’t know if it’s a drastic change. It’s just a different circumstance – and the changes over the past 10 years aren’t specific to NBA players. It’s a change in society at large. The isolation and loneliness I spoke about is a function of the pressures of social media that so many young people feel today.”
Q – I know of the long-standing efforts of everyone in NBA Player Programs (circa ’86) from Satch Sanders to the NBA’s Leah Wilcox to the NBA and now NBA Players Association’s Chrysa Chin and everyone at the NBPA, all trying for many years to help the overall aspects of player health, welfare and success.
Is there “more” being done (aside from NBA Player Programs meetings, orientations, visits, etc) to help and teach the younger players?
Silver: “The league office, teams and the Players Association are in complete agreement that having a robust mental health program for NBA players is critically important. What we determined was that players could benefit from having multiple resources available to them through the league, their teams and the union, which provides players with different options if they’re experiencing mental health challenges or just want someone to talk to about their issues.
“Our programs are more developed than at any point in our history, and we are very focused on bringing those same resources to the next generation of young elite players so that they are prepared when they get to the NBA. That said, we know it’s an ongoing effort and we’re always looking for ways to improve and expand these resources.”
On the “jealousy amongst players” issue:
Q – In the reporting thus far – is there anything wrong or misconstrued that you might clarify? What did you mean by “jealousy” amongst the players?
Silver: “I would clarify that this issue around mental health isn’t specific to NBA players. It’s an issue that faces society at large – and particularly young people. NBA players are among the greatest athletes in the world, but they aren’t unlike others of their generation who face enormous scrutiny in their work and in their lives.
“There is real stress that comes along with the job, and it’s part of our responsibility at the league to make sure they have access to the necessary resources and support during and after their playing careers.
“In terms of my comments related to “jealousy,” my point was that NBA players are ultra-competitive. They want to be part of a winning culture and build their own personal reputations in a highly-competitive environment that comes with increased pressure – but that’s also a reality of modern life today that we’re all trying to manage in some way.”
Editorial Note: The take-away from both being at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference and from my follow-up with Commissioner Silver, is that this issue is SERIOUS and it’s as SERIOUS as I’ve ever seen the NBA Commissioner EVER, and this reporter has known him quite well since 1992. Quite frankly, to put it in context, you needed to hear the tone of his voice.
The well being of the NBA players is at the center of the discussion and this reporter must stress, the topic is not fodder for social media snippets nor sports talk radio. As noted, from Silver’s comments, it’s not limited to NBA players, and we’ll add – it’s not to be taken in broad strokes, to wave a brush as widely as the oft-used in “society.”
It’s every single teenager checking their social media accounts to see what their friends are posting, to see the Instagram and Facebook lives their friends and rivals lead, all looking so wonderful and glamourous and exciting, compared to their own existence.
It’s about sports radio talk show hosts walking down the railroad tracks. (See this article). ^
In front of him, the train platform sat atop a small rise, up a zigzagging concrete ramp. For a moment, he paused, standing tall and lanky, with a lightly receding hairline and a buzzcut. He was waiting for the 8:01 commuter train, bound for West Medford, then North Station, but he wasn’t getting on.
Instead, he was going to head south on foot, following a little path beside the woods that ran past soccer fields and a playground, to a spot where the train picks up speed on its three-minute hop to the next station. There, he planned to step in front of the train and die. Tonight, his wife and kids were staying at their house in Maine. The plan was simple. He started to walk.Boston Magazine
It’s about deep, dark depression, no matter what someone’s NBA scoring average, W-2 or 1099 form says come April 15th, nor where they stay when on the company dime, Chuck.
What do we say, in closing?
Listen to the words of Adam Silver, people, and read the story in this month’s Boston Magazine, and instead of cracking wise, trying to grab a newsworthy snippet or playing “Telephone” with an interview you didn’t bother to listen to in its entirety or in context, you might check on your loved ones, the teenager or the sports radio personality who lives next door. Be a little more human and show some concern.
You just might stop them from walking down the train tracks to commit suicide.