This week, Slate senior editor David Haglund published “Why Isn’t Delonte West in the NBA?” Haglund’s story explores how the stigmatization of mental illness may have forced a premature end to West’s basketball career.
Haglund and his editor, Slate’s Josh Levin, kick-started the comments section on Wednesday night, when the story was released early to Slate Plus members.
Here’s an edited roundup of some of the most interesting conversations happening around the piece.
@josh_levin What would you say surprised you the most in the process of reporting this story?
@davidhaglund As someone who hasn't reported a story about professional sports before, I was sort of under the impression that those "in the know," high-powered execs or coaches or even particularly well-connected journalists, knew all these secrets that fans could only guess at. I thought if I got some of those people on the phone, and they were honest with me, I would get right to the bottom of various uncertainties. But I got a fair number of those people on the phone, and I think they were honest with me. Turns out there are a lot of things that even well-connected people simply don't know. That shouldn't surprise me, but it did.
@josh_levin Sports allow us to abandon reason. We "hate" other human beings for no other reason than that they wear a red jersey rather than a blue one. That can be a whole lot of fun.
But do you think that line of thinking -- the fact that we're so quick to judge athletes for very superficial reasons -- contributed to the casual way in which people came to conclude that Delonte West was "crazy"?
And if so, do you think there's any realistic hope of changing how we view sports/athletes so that sort of thing doesn't happen? Or is it just inevitable?
@davidhaglund The casual way that sports fans often think about athletes probably was a contributing factor, in my opinion.
Will the whole culture of sports fandom ever change dramatically for the better in this regard? Maybe not. Lack of empathy is a pretty basic human problem. But insofar as the too-easy conclusions people reached had to do with misunderstandings about mental health, then yes, I do think that could and maybe even will improve.
@Ideator The "hate" fans display towards traditional rivals, and to particular players on rival teams, has always struck me as bizarrely irrational.
It's ridiculous. It's Zombie-lemmings on meth. But I guess it happens in so many other spheres of life - politics, religion, even artistic endeavours aren't immune - that it is hardly surprising that it also happens in sport. It doesn't make it any less irrational though.
@Joel I'm a super loyal sports fans, and I don't truly, personally hate any players or fans. I don't hate a Jets fan the same way Cersei hates Tyrion. 99.9% of fans are the same way.
@brendan Of course it's irrational. One of the great things about sports is that they serve as a meaningless outlet for our irrational feelings. It's much better than focusing those emotions on things with actual real-world consequences, which unfortunately happens all too often.
@Pulkit Given that you felt that an interview with West was critical to making a story like this work, would you have had concerns writing the piece had you not been able to spend some time with him at his house?
@davidhaglund Good question. We talked about that possibility in the abstract, but I'm honestly not sure what we would have done if he'd never agreed to sit down and talk.
I suppose it could have ended up as a quasi-write-around (i.e., a profile written without access), with more attention given to, say, the many sport psychologists and psychiatrists I talked to, or perhaps more room for the stories of Jason Caffey and Luther Wright and others.
But mostly I'm just glad it didn't come to that. Would have been a tough decision, and I definitely would have had concerns about trying to write it in that case.
@davidhaglund I dislike the “Tyson Zone” -- it seems like a way of allowing ourselves to gossip about and mock people whom we deem ridiculous, or in some sense beyond the pale, not deserving of any kind of respect, basically. I'm not sure that's a good way to think about anyone.
@Celery Salt The stigma surrounding mental illness is still quite prominent in society at large so it stands to reason that it would thrive within the highly insulated subculture of professional sports where weaknesses are things to be hidden, ignored or (in the case of your opponents) exploited.
That said, I do think the NBA's meritocracy has demonstrated some fairness on this issue. Ron Artest actually thanked his psychiatrist immediately following the Lakers' 2010 NBA Championship and over time was generally viewed by the media and fans alike as an over-comer of sorts despite his battles with mental illness. Royce White, on the other hand, quickly wore out his welcome by under-performing and complaining, despite Houston's sincere (IMO) and repeated attempts to accommodate him.
I wonder if there are other non-mental health reasons that are conspiring to blacklist West from returning to the NBA?
@gusher He's been an average to a slightly-below average player his entire career. He's 30 now, and likely in the downward phase of his career. I'm sure teams aren't eager to absorb the headache for a mediocre player with little upside.
That might sound unfair, and it may be the case that his disability is a cause for discrimination. On the other hand, he's made over $16M in his career. We all should be so lucky to be so rich at 30.
@Will Oremus: The money is nice, I'm sure. But what about the way the guy has been turned into a caricature and a punch line? I don't know if millions can make up for the feeling that you're being laughed at everywhere you go.
@gusher: I suspect you greatly overestimate just how many people know who Delonte West is, and what he looks like. I'm guessing that most days, nobody is laughing at him. And he's still rich.
@Will Oremus I'd like to think you're right, but...
@gusher Yes, an NBA-focused comedy Twitter account will make fun of him once a year. That probably shouldn't compel him to consider witness protection.
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