Shabazz Muhammad and the Rock that Keeps Away Tigers

Steve McPherson —  August 8, 2013 — 8 Comments

tigerrock2

In The Simpsons episode “Much Apu About Nothing” from the show’s seventh season, a docile bear wandering onto Evergreen Terrace causes an uproar that leads to the creation of a Bear Patrol. Homer (who led a mob to the mayor’s office chanting, “We’re here, we’re queer, we don’t want any more bears”) is satisfied with the result, saying, “Well, there’s not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol is sure doing its job.” Lisa then explains that this is faulty logic: “Dad, what if I were to tell you that this rock keeps away tigers.” Homer asks how it works and Lisa replies, “It doesn’t work. It’s just a stupid rock. But you don’t see any tigers around, do you?” So Homer says, “Lisa, I’d like to buy your rock.”

Right now, a lot of people are buying the rock when it comes to Shabazz Muhammad’s forced exit from the NBA’s Rookie Transition Program for “bringing a female guest into his hotel room” as initially reported by Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today. Muhammad was no stranger to controversy during his time at UCLA, from sulking on the court after it was Larry Drew who hit a last-second shot to beat Washington to off-court troubles with the legitimacy of his age and his father’s relentless self-promotion. If Muhammad struggles at the NBA level, this latest transgression will be remembered as a bellwether, a giant misstep as he entered the league that augured his problems.

Or, you know, if he does well, it will all likely be forgotten. Mario Chalmers and Darrell Arthur were sent home from the program in 2008 after they were caught with marijuana and it hardly ever comes up when people talk about them. Not so for Michael Beasley, who was later fined $50,000 for not cooperating with the league’s investigation after admitting he was involved in the incident. Beasley’s struggles have continued, and so that fine is kept in many fans’ back pockets and ready to pull out as evidence of his hopelessness.

But what’s more interesting than whether people think it matters or not is why they think it matters or not, and what that says about the moral architecture we place athletes in. On the one hand, there are those who think a rule barring guests—and not just women, but any guests—from the four-day event is a stupid rule. Chalmers and Arthur (and Beasley) were, for example, actually engaging in an illegal activity, whereas Muhammad was just entertaining a ladyfriend (I believe that’s the technical term). To which others will reply that not being able to keep it in your pants for four days shows a lack of character.

All this questioning of the legitimacy of the rule, though, misses the underlying moral fabric that all the rules athletes are subject to at the program are attached to: obedience itself is moral. UC Berkeley professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics George Lakoff discusses this in his book Moral Politics in examining the ways that our understanding of government is built on our understanding of how a family should be run. In a lot of ways, athletics are not so far removed from the military in mostly being run by what Lakoff terms “Strict Father” morality. “The entire Strict Father morality,” he writes, “is based on the … assumption that the exercise of authority is itself moral; that is, it is moral to reward obedience and punish disobedience.”

Whether you agree with this or not, there’s some sense to this idea in relation to the NBA. Players are going to be asked to do things constantly and—much as in the military—it doesn’t always matter whether they understand why they’re doing them. If a play calls for a player to be a decoy or to stand far away from the action or set a pick and fade rather than roll, all the play demands is that he do it, not that he understand it. And—whether we like it or not—many team situations work more smoothly and thus better when there’s a level of unquestioning commitment, a certain unconditional responsiveness to demands.

What’s interesting about the Strict Father model is the call-and-response morality it sets up. It says that it is moral to obey authority, but also that it is moral for that authority to punish transgression. This is the only way for people under that authority to learn the lessons that will allow them to one day have moral authority over themselves and others. It’s not just that Muhammad was wrong, but that if the moral fabric of the whole thing is to hold up, he must be punished for it.

In Muhammad’s case, of course, this is all metaphorical. Muhammad is not a child, and the NBA is not a parent, but the metaphor is the way to understand the situation. Those who find the Strict Father morality harsh or ineffective will say these rules infantilize the players and maybe even prevent them from developing their own sense of authority. Those who buy into it will see the rules themselves as more important than what they actually say, will understand that life is full of arbitrary rules whose provenance is not to be challenged, but simply obeyed.

How malleable that underlying understanding of the relationships in sports is is debatable. Seeing the metaphor, though, might help us at least perceive it more clearly, of giving us a better sense of when the rocks we’ve bought are keeping away tigers or just being stupid.

Steve McPherson

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8 responses to Shabazz Muhammad and the Rock that Keeps Away Tigers

  1. Lakoff’s precursor to Moral Politics is called Philosophy in the Flesh and is a really interesting read. He goes very deep into the Strict Father vs. Nuturing Parent models of morality and since I read that way back in the early 200′s I’ve always thought of how mass-sports culture is the exemplar of Strict Father morality, even though coaching definitely involves a good deal of nurturing.

  2. Good post, Steve. I was torn when this news came out because I agree that the rule seems awfully stupid but I also see the point that it is a rule and someone who wants to be part of the NBA is going to have to learn to follow the league’s rules, even when they are stupid. The rules about dress code would be another example.

    I do hope that what Shabazz takes away from this situation is that being part of the NBA is a great enough opportunity that it’s worth putting up with temporary inconveniences like having to get prior approval for guests to visit your room when you’re attending a training seminar.

  3. Awesome post. Props on the Lakoff cite, and fascinating military analogy–I think it captures really well the polarizing way fans are viewing this.

  4. With the way Adelman is with rookies, I dont expect to see Shabazz on the court until at least Jan. Thats if he busts his tail everyday. #wastedpick

  5. Shawn, I would say that was going to be the outcome regardless, and by far the best part of the Martin, Budinger, Brewer signing trifecta. It limited the team’s reliance on a rookie. I guess I don’t have a problem with what Shabazz did. I put myself in his situation at 20. I was in the military and I can tell you for a fact none of the guys; officers and enlisted alike followed every rule when it came down to it. Places we weren’t supposed to go, we went. Things we weren’t supposed to do, we did. I turned out just fine, and I am sure so did most of those others guys.

  6. I have been one of those people saying “if he can’t keep it in his pants for 4 days” and what I got out of your story regarding “Moral Politics” is basically how I feel about the situation. I could honestly care less who he would have brought back to his room (male or female) and to be honest when I was 20 and I had the opportunity to bring a cute girl back to my room to…uhh…study, I jumped all over it. I also know if I was told by my employer that I could not do so for 4 days I would have obliged out of respect for said employer. I think the rule on the surface is stupid but the underlying current that I believe exists in using that rule is the problem I have with Muhammad. I don’t know Rick Adelman personally but I have a feeling from observing his behavior with rookies that this underlying current is the reason he doesn’t like to play rookies and I believe Muhammad will do nothing for the team his first year…which is okay to me to a point because he is a spark off the bench at this point and nowhere near the Wolves’ focal point. I’m fairly positive Muhammad isn’t as disobedient as people portray him to be from some type of propaganda but when Matt Barnes is in your corner defending your rule-breaking ways you may want to sit and re-think what you’re doing to start your career.

  7. First off, I always enjoy reading storing like this that add a relevant layer to something not specifically part of the original news. Of course, Steve does this a lot, which is why it’s good he writes here.

    One thing I’d like for people to let go of is this false notion that Rick Adelman treats rookies any differently than other NBA coaches who’ve been in his situation. When a team is competing for a playoff berth, a rookie has to be some combination of able to fit into a system or bring something the team needs in order to receive significant minutes. In the case of Derrick Williams, “He dunks pretty” isn’t enough reason to gain minutes on a team angling for the playoffs, and when they clearly weren’t in the playoff hunt, he had plenty of chances to showcase his skills.

    Here’s a list of guys who played more than 15 mpg in their 1st 2 years under Adelman (not including an older Luis Scola): Joe Smith (36.5), Jason Williams (34.8), Luther Head (18.9 in his 2nd year, Adelman’s 1st in Houston), Rubio (31.6), Wesley Johnson (22.6 in his 2nd year), Budinger (21.2), Williams (23.2), Shved (23.9), Clifford Robinson (21.4), Peja Stojakovic (22.7), Carl Landry (19.6), Aaron Brooks (19.9), Tariq Abdul-Wahad (24.6 in Adelman’s 1st year in Sacto and his 2nd), Kevin Martin (20.2), Hedo Turkoglu (20.9), Francisco Garcia (19.4 in his rookie year), Darius Songaila (17.2). If Muhammad is a better offensive player than Budinger or a better defender/energy guy than Brewer, he’ll play. If he’s not, that’s about him, not Adelman. There’s enough evidence that if a player can’t get minutes from Adelman at a young age, he’s probably not going to have a long career.

  8. Unfortunately, Bazzy’s embarrassment will reflect wholly upon himself and not upon the hapless fool who drafted him. It is Flip who should be illuminated as the Father who built the family home on a fault line. What kind of a stool makes his pick on draft day and then is forced to waffle about it? He had no Plan C? Taylor and Flip are the Strict Fathers who should not be obeyed if you’re a fan. I would like to have seen Bazzy say he brought in a ladyfriend or his own mother just to challenge a stupid rule that should be ignored by every draftee as a way of breaking down the absurd morality of pro sports. I’d be in his corner, then. But it’s obvious the man-child has no deep thinking except about when to pull and shoot or barrel forward. We should all be encouraging actions that dispute arbitrary rules, and we should also be pointing blame where it belongs: the embarrassment to the Wolves was not caused by a horny young man, but by the very heads of the organization we support: Taylor, for not finding greater competence than Flip, and Flip for being incompetent.

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