On Monday, Grantland, that special place on the web where Brian Phillips’ unrelentingly wonderful writing* vies with YouTube mashups and discussions of the latest pop culture trends, posted a podcast in which Dan Lebotard and Jon Sciambi hosted guests Jeff and Stan Van Gundy. While the vast majority of the podcast deals with rather inane moments in Stan Van Gundy’s recent dismissal as head coach of the NBA’s Orlando Magic, there is a terrific point made toward the end. To paraphrase: coaches and player are subjected to such a constant barrage of media questions that after a while you’re either put on autopilot and become a drone or you make a mistake.
In essence, this is true in all sports, not just the NBA. In a humorous moment, Jeff Van Gundy refers to not telling the truth in press conferences as “modulating the truth.” While an absurd turn of phrase that he got a lot of wonderful stick for, Jeff does make the larger point that no matter what is said, the media will turn those words against you. There will be a picking and choosing of statements, a dissection that can lead to out-of-context headlines. But, because you have to speak to the press every single day, have to have practice and speak, have to have a game and speak, you can never say nothing. Words of some sort have to come out of your mouth. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” really.
When Cesc Fabregas “complained about playing time” the other day in a press conference, the quotes were exploded into transfer rumors. No doubt he was asked if he was happy to have been subbed out of Barça’s matches this season. No doubt he answered honestly. It was probably not an innocent question, but it was probably a tired response that, in reality, was as well-put as you could make it without either not answering the question (he’s avoiding the truth!) or complaining about his playing time (he’s not a team player!). There is no right answer. Say nothing and you are a reticent, anti-fan jerk. Say something–anything–and your words will be twisted so that you are some sort of punk who hates his team, teammates, coaches, and management. Or maybe you hate the fans.
As such, the “truth” does not exist in this situation. Cesc Fabregas was probably “modulating the truth” in that he wasn’t fully communicative about how he feels. But he would be strung up along Las Ramblas if he dared criticize his team, even if he’s right. But that, of course, doesn’t matter. Cristiano Ronaldo, hateable as he is, is probably currently “sad” because he is vastly underpaid. He is paid less than some Argentine guy you’ve never heard of playing in China. No, seriously, he is. Samuel Eto’o makes €20m a year. Messi makes €10.5. Make sense? No. But come out and say that you’re underpaid and you’re a mercenary. You’re a greedy cretin. You’re, well, all the things both Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez have been called. You’re everything that was aimed at Wayne Rooney when he asked for more money.
You cannot win.
Because you cannot win, because you cannot possibly do anything other than hope it all blows over, there is no reason to listen to anything that any of these players say. I don’t care if Tito Vilanova comes out and says “Jonathan dos Santos will never play in this shirt again,” because he very well may suit up in the next match. Until he says my name, Tito can say whatever he wants. He’s hired to win. The players are hired to win. And they’re worth monstrous amounts of money to the club and the fans, but both treat them like toys.
“You’re not loyal!” we shout when they ask for more money.
“Traitor!” we shout when they leave for a big raise. “Why doesn’t he stay forever like Player X?”
“Why are you bothering us?” we ask, irritated, when Player X, now retired, has knee issues and asks the club he served so loyally for help with medical bills incurred as a result of his career-ending injury.
We have no loyalty. We have no right to judge. The players play and do so under pressure that you and I cannot imagine. Brian Phillips wrote, “I sometimes crack under stress while packing the car for a road trip, or reading a book review.” Goddamned right we do, because we’re human and we’ll cop to that all day all night. But Cesc Fabregas better have his head screwed on right, better not make waves, no rocking the boat. Oh, and be sure to be at the press conference where absurdly personal questions will be asked for an hour. Failure to show up will result in a hefty fine.
You cannot win.
*Read that article. It is perhaps the best one I’ve ever read about anything ever. Seriously. Read it.