The Graceless Generation

Is it Kyrie and his peers who disrespect the game? Or is it the rest of us?


As all this hostile noise swirled around him and the playpen where he works, an otherwise quiet Kyrie Irving came out of the shadows only to try to correct the sports industrial complex on a couple of things. First, he tweeted at Stephen A. Smith, saying, "You're gonna have to explain yourself to people in your generation. I am not around many 50-plus year olds that speak and act like you do, so this is new for me." And in response to Barstool profiting off t shirts that placed Kyrie's name with Putin, Isis and Kim Jong Un, he added, "NBA champion and gold medalist. Just thought the statement needed a correction as ya'll continue to make money off my name." Stephen A responded by challenging him to a debate because of course he did. Barstool responded by adding NBA champion and gold medalist below the names of Putin, Isis and Kim Jong Un.

        Kyrie can't win this fight, obviously, because we have him so very outnumbered. And the entitlement of the sports fans and sports media that keep calling him entitled is as great as his own ... though we were far less skilled and graceful in earning it than he was.  We WILL snuff him out at every angle, no matter how much humanity he requests, and no matter how politely he asks. And we will feel entitled to do it because, like an angry citizen telling a cop we pay his taxes, our passion, no matter how unreasonable, is what funds Kyrie ... Stephen A ... and Barstool. We feel more entitled to our bad behavior than Irving is to his, even though his skill level is vastly more rare than our passion. Our need for content will always usurp his need for content (pronounced like happiness). 

This is not meant as a defense of Kyrie, by the way. His behavior in nuking three consecutive successful blueprints is not quite defensible in what we've made of this workplace. But I'd like to examine his requests since it is about the only time we've heard his voice amid this cacophony of angry noise he birthed. He is requesting we think differently about how we treat people like him, and our response is to mock and tell him to fuck all the way off. He is trying to sage sports of some of its spiritual impurities, and we laugh maniacally in his face and tell HIM that he's the crazy one.  But he isn't exactly wrong, that it is odd for a 50-plus-year-old adult to yell and scream for days on television about where someone a quarter century his junior dribbles a basketball. He isn't exactly wrong, that we probably shouldn't be profiting by putting his name near Putin's. In a vacuum, he is probably closer to right in objecting than we are in profiting. 

But he doesn't work in a vacuum, does he? No, he works in the most insanely emotional escape fantasyland there is, a place where it is normal for a grown man to pay $130 for the privilege of wearing HIS name on their back as a part of THEIR identity. We don't do this for Tom Hanks. So we aren't going to really hear him above our laughter. We somehow think we care more about basketball than he does, and that's offensive to us as fans, even though it ignores that it can in no way be true. You don't get to that kind of good at basketball at his size not caring about it. You don't make the biggest shot in the history of that sport or have the greatest handles we've ever seen by being flippant about your craftsmanship. But it is much easier, and more fun, to tell him to change his behavior than it is to modify or even examine our own. Ours has been normalized, through hecklers and sports radio and debate television. Raining down poisonous judgment upon the entertainer is part of the construct where we work now, accepted, filed under our passion, even though we might call this kind of love dysfunctional or even abusive in other kinds of relationships. We care deeply about movies, but Tom Cruise doesn't get this if he's unreliable about showing up for work. The 24-hour channels for music are there to, you know, play or celebrate music. OK, MTV doesn't actually do much music anymore, but the programming there and on First Take now can both be described as Ridiculousness.

So Kyrie HAS to treat his workplace with more respect, according to us. But does he? Yes, of course, we WANT him to, but does he really? Because all I see is an employee who keeps getting rewarded by always getting what he wants even as he fails to show up for work. He just opted in for $36.5 million, recouping more than double all the money he lost last year in choosing not to get vaccinated. There aren't many people criticizing him who can get away with doing that to an employer. He began the smearing of his name by jilting LeBron, but now a desperate LeBron is more than willing to welcome him back. Kyrie will make more this year than Joel Embiid and Devin Booker. In other words, for what he did last year, for his contributions in creating one of the most embarrassing franchise collapses we've ever seen, he just got a $3 million annual raise.

Irving, who just turned 30, is one of the sad faces Adam Silver can point to when he talks about how unhappy his young players seem. They seem to have a different relationship with work than Stephen A Smith does, that generation, but there has always been a disconnect between the older people who cover sports and the younger people who play them. He views himself as an artist-philosopher and, like Ben Stiller's Apple TV show Severance, he spent last season asking if perhaps our relationship with work is too lopsided, too irrational. Irving makes for a very bad messenger, but he isn't wrong in requesting decency. He is just a fool if he thinks he expects to get it. Never mind the mental health crisis facing young people in the social-media age, or the conversation Kevin Love and Demar Derozen tried to initiate about it. All Kyrie will ever get from us in the conditional-love workplace of sports is the passion. COMpassion, that appears to be a bridge too far. You want to be treated more humanely, Kyrie? We're going to make you work for it. And then remind you loudly that YOU are the one who is entitled, selfish and wrong.