Pro sports is something that has always brought me joy. As a kid, watching the world’s best athletes was a way to dream. Highlight reels of slam dunks, touchdown catches and hole-in-ones let me believe that anything is possible (shout-out to Kevin Garnett for creating a sillier version of “I’m going to Disney World”). And as an adult, it gives me a reason to kick back with a sour raspberry beer, a bag of black bean tortilla chips, and passively contemplate how I turned into such an insufferable douche…from the comfort of my own home. But more than my consumption choices, my joy now comes from the sports Twitterverse, otherwise known as the greatest reality TV drama ever seen/the largest PR nightmare outside of ol’ Donnie T. I like to refer to this splendid time as “the Era of the Diva”.
The Era of the Diva (from here on referred to as EotD) was manifested into existence with the ascension of Twitter and Instagram. Giving North American athletes, some of the most criticized and overly-talked-about human beings, a way to bypass the media and go straight to the consumer has allowed leagues such as the NBA to build their brand in ways they never could before. Before Twitter, no one would get to enjoy LeBron James shufflin’ through his dining room or Kevin Durant snake jokes being retired by Kevin Durant himself. But the EotD is not named as such because of the humorously candid or self-deprecating moments.
Instead, EotD refers to the media leaks, the temper tantrums, and the “I’m not a role model” moments. Need an example? Look no further than Jimmy Butler.
Jimmy Butler is the NBA’s latest reminder that journalism is about who breaks the news, not who reports the truth. Through the past month of the NBA offseason, it has come to light that Butler, star shooting guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves, wants a trade. Now, trade requests happen in sports all the time, and they always have. Players hate the organization, their teammates, or their role, and they want out. It’s like any industry; some people just don’t feel like they belong, and they want a change.
But imagine this: you work for a PR agency, and your client lets you know that a key member of their company wants out. They’re unhappy with their role, and they’ve decided it’s time to move on. So it comes down to you to release this info to the public carefully. You need the right message, a narrative released at the appropriate time that respects everyone involved.
Now, exact same scenario, but this time as a member of Minnesota Timberwolves PR team. Jimmy Butler wants out, coach Tom Thibodeau says full embargo until he’s traded, because you want to be able to control your position in trading, and again, keep things professional. So, the front office feeds you info as trade talks move forward, you start drafting releases for all potential moves, and then you ca-
Wait what? You didn’t put that out. Ok, don’t panic, maybe it’s just media specu-
WTF?! Minnesota didn’t even allow media into that practice! How do they have a quo-
Annnnnnnd there it is. The reality of 21st century sports is that players (read:employees) control the narrative now. They want a trade? Leak it to the media. They have beef with a teammate? Start a public Insta feud with them, a former player who has nothing to do with it, and just for the giggles, the teammate’s sibling too.
Can you fathom the fiery storm of shit and profanity that would come down on you if you went to your boss and said “So, I was hoping we could negotiate a release from my contract Tom. I’m really just not happy with my position here, and I honestly don’t think I fit the culture. Now, I know I leaked some stuff to the media…and trashed the company on Twitter…and did an unauthorized interview for a major news channel…and publicly bullied Andrew from accounting, which by the way, can’t believe HR hasn’t swung by my office on that one…actually, let’s start over Tom…”.
It actually took me three attempts to write that, and I’m still not happy with it. Why? Because of how GOD D*#% RIDICULOUS THAT DISCUSSION WOULD BE! Or, if that paragraph doesn’t quite encapsulate the soap-opera levels of NBA reporting, how about JR Smith throwing a bowl of soup at his superior? In case you’re wondering, no, he was not released, and more importantly, it was chicken tortilla.
And this is the EotD. Soup throwing, Insta-feuding, slam-dunking adults that have realized the power of social media, coupled with journalists donning Twitter-fingers so fast they IV Gatorade just so their thumbs don’t cramp up.
As someone working in the Public Relations field, these types of stories physically trigger a panic attack. As a sports fan, I’ve popped so many ‘here-we-go’ bags of popcorn that I’ve developed an allergy to butter. But the reality is these aren’t the people I looked up to as a kid. The story of sports used to be on-the-court, on-the-field, on-the-ice. It used to be about camaraderie, competition and truth in journalism. Nowadays the narrative is off-the-court, streaming on our phones, feeding our constant, salivating need for juicy headlines as a basketball game plays in the background. What was once the NBA is now One Tree Hill, and guess what? It’s not going anywhere, because people love it.