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Hayes: Athletes are humans too

Bob Hayes, Columnist

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These days, sports fans have come to expect perfection from athletes. One foul word, one completely human reaction or one simple mistake can get more coverage than the game itself.

This past Saturday, the top sports story in the United States came from a basketball game between unpaid amateurs that even few hardcore fans knew was taking place. In fact, this story centered around a split-second action that occurred off the court during a dead ball. However, anyone with ESPN’s SportsCenter app suddenly received multiple alerts saying that 19-year-old All-American Marcus Smart had shoved a fan in the final seconds of Oklahoma State’s 65-61 loss to Texas Tech.

Within minutes, my Twitter feed exploded with outraged journalists and fans exclaiming how Smart made a stupid decision. Obviously, confronting and shoving a spectator is a poor choice. Anyone can tell you that, especially Marcus Smart. Even my dog knows she should not push anybody.

I am not here to say Smart’s action was right; I just think it is a little unfair for fans to sit behind a computer screen and criticize a 19-year-old (yes, he is probably younger than you are) for confronting a fan who taunted him toward the end of an emotional loss. Smart, a young man who grew up in a troubled home and dedicates every game to his dead half-brother, has had a somewhat disappointing campaign after making the mature decision to return to school for his sophomore season. Still, we expect him to be morally perfect.

The same day on the opposite side of the Atlantic, Italian soccer star Mario Balotelli, who plays for historic club AC Milan, cried on the bench after he was subbed off during a defeat at Napoli. The 23-year-old Balotelli has often been the victim of racism over the years, yet he received harsh criticism and hysterical laughter from fans who could not begin to feel his pain.

We can attribute a substantial amount of this magnification of the athletes’ faults to warp speed, modern-era sports coverage. As Grantland’s Bill Simmons mentioned on his podcast, in 2004 All-NBA point guard Chris Paul, then playing for Wake Forest, blatantly punched an opponent in the groin during the middle of a game – yet this was only a secondary story that night. In 2014, a college kid shoves a fan and our phones blow up, the story leads SportsCenter and it is absurdly compared to the astronomically worse “Malice at the Palace,” when NBA player Ron Artest deliberately entered the crowd and attacked a fan. Smart receives a three-game suspension, and we never stop hearing about how the incident hurts his draft stock. 

Many of us love sports because we see our favorite athletes as projections of ourselves. We search for the rainbow we could never learn to follow in grade school or the slam dunk we have tried and failed to do so many times, but we do not stand for these athletes – the very ones we objectify as characters in video games – making human mistakes.

What the issue comes down to is that we, as sports fans, unreasonably expect the world’s greatest athletes to act as the world’s greatest people. We criticize sports for being too emotionless and businesslike, but when athletes finally display emotion – perhaps what humanizes them the most – why do we find it wrong?

Bob Hayes is a Weinberg freshman. He can be reached at roberthayes2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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About the Writer
Bob Hayes, Opinion Editor

Bob is a Weinberg junior studying economics, political science and English and pursuing an Integrated Marketing Communications certificate. His past...