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.