I’ve harped on this before, but two books I’ve been reading recently have me exercised all over again about the way the word “entitled” gets thrown around in the sports world. To recap, by far the most common application of the term is to characterize athletes (and, more often than not, though it’s never explicitly used racially, black athletes) who, as the song goes, have been coddled and treated like royalty since they were 12 years old. All because they happen to be born with great athletic skill. And all of which is turning them into anti-social miscreants because no one has ever told them no or smacked them upside the head when they got out of line. LeBron is among those who’ve been described as entitled on account of his allegedly pampered upbringing (one characterized by poverty, violence and repeated changes of address before he was ten years old).
Sports discourse focuses on the athletes themselves, so it’s not breaking news that they draw the most scrutiny for their off-court behavior as well as their on-court performance. Relative to how often they’re discussed, however, owners, other high profile coaches and executives are very rarely described in these terms. There is no question that LeBron has been at the receiving end of the entitlement charge far more often than Jim Dolan has, for example. This is maddening.
Just Mercy – which is the summer reading book for incoming Carolina students – is the memoir of the death penalty lawyer, Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson, now in his fifties, has had a remarkable career trying to bring a modicum of justice, decency and mercy to the condemned, including some of the disturbing number of innocent men and women who’ve been condemned to death for crimes they didn’t commit. One story that anchors Just Mercy is that of Walter McMillan. McMillan was a black man living in rural Alabama. McMillan had no criminal history when, in 1987, he was convicted of murdering a young white woman in a dry cleaning store. The state’s case against him was, from the start, a sick joke. A dozen eyewitnesses could place him miles away from the scene of the crime throughout the day of the murder. The two main state’s witnesses against him told laughably inconsistent stories in their attempts to connect McMillan to the crime. The former was threatened with a capital crime himself if he recanted (which he eventually did anyway). The second was paid off by the local sheriff for his testimony. He spent six years on death row before Stevenson won his release. The book is rife with cases of police and prosecutorial abuse, involving white folks as well as black folks, women and men, including cases right up to the present (every week, it seems there is another story of an inmate released from jail after years or decades of confinement for a crime he or she did not commit).
The people being railroaded to one degree or another have one thing in common – they’re poor and therefore lack the resources to mount an adequate defense on their own behalf. The stark nature of the class divide when it comes to the death row population in particular and the prison population more generally is well known to anybody who spends more than five minutes reading about this stuff. And as Matt Taibbi made clear in his book, The Divide, it all makes something of a mockery of the claim that Americans are equal under the law. Quite demonstrably, we are not, a problem that has grown only more evident over the past generation.
Robert Putnam’s Our Kids also provides compelling and sobering evidence for the extraordinary and growing class divide in America and its implications for the life chances of our kids. Kids from affluent circumstances, in addition to all of the advantages with which they begin life, have those advantages reproduced and amplified throughout their childhoods. If they screw up, parents are there to bail them out. They live in neighborhoods, go to schools and benefit from family support systems that provide a strongly knitted safety net underneath them. If they need it, second and third chances are the norm. Not so those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, against whom the deck is stacked from the beginning, are more likely to be presumed to be wayward and are treated more harshly when they do misbehave (both inside the home and out).
The regular lecturing about entitlement from sports pundits, focused as it is disproportionately on those who, as it happens, emerged from these kinds of dire circumstances, reveals a profound ignorance about the nature of the society those who make such pronouncements are living in. This is doubly maddening because the premise of the entitlement charge is that its leveler imagines himself to be saying something insightful and indeed profound about our society. That we are fallen in the way we are because of the corrosive coddling (of one very specific group) of presumptively entitled kids.
Athletes of all stripes, from all backgrounds, can behave obnoxiously and worse. And as long as we’re going to have 24/7 chatter about sports, it’s fine to for some of that time to be taken up criticizing those who act badly. But its egregious misuse ought to render the word “entitled” off limits to sports pundits (who, in an added irksome twist, are typically themselves among the most affluent Americans without acknowledging that fact), until they can better demonstrate an elementary awareness of the nature of privilege in American society.