Karalis: On media noise, COVID battles, and the play-in tournament for Celtics

(Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)

We live in a world that’s more connected than ever, which means it’s almost impossible for athletes to avoid seeing any criticism of their games. And in this social media age, where anonymity blocks accountability, some of the criticism can be pretty harsh. 

For example, Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell missed a free throw that opened the door for an Oral Roberts upset last month, which unleashed a profane flood of threatening comments on his social media outlets.

Add to that the current media climate where the loudest, most obnoxious voices tend to be the ones who stand out and it’s easy to see how even the thickest skin can get itchy when exposed to it all. 

And so it was under that umbrella that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum got together to re-center themselves and their Boston Celtics teammates, and block out the noise. 

“Sometimes the way things are going, how much pressure we get from you guys in the media kind of makes us less open to talk, or more upset about things that aren’t that big of a deal in hindsight,” Brown said after last night’s win over New York. “Things could be worse. I think we still have a chance to make a run, and we still have a chance to do everything that we said we wanted to do. Sometimes one game tends to carry over, and today we didn’t let that happen.”

The relationship between the media and athletes has always been somewhat uneasy. On one side are the athletes who have supreme gifts and who work incredibly hard to be one of the very few to reach these heights. It’s impossible for non-NBA players to fully understand the rigors of the job. Physical and mental preparation, outside obligations, internal pressures from self, family, or friends, and the external expectations of perfection at all times take their toll.

“I think a lot of people, including fans, media, and just everybody forget that we’re humans,” Marcus Smart recently said. “We’ve got a lot going on other than basketball, and then we have to come here, clear our minds from our individual life, and come give that energy to a group of guys here, and play. So it’s a lot. It’s a lot.”

All of this is true, and it’s vitally important to understand that even though these are people who do sometimes superhuman things for our entertainment, they are still human beings. 

The media’s side of this relationship is a bit more difficult, because players may not fully understand who or what the media is. They are exposed to everything from aggregation accounts on Twitter, to beat writers (like me), to radio and television opinion-makers. We are all, in one way or another, media. And we all have our own jobs and motivations. 

Some people just want fame and clicks. Some create controversy where there is none under the guise of “embracing debate.” It’s performance art packaged as sports opinion. 

“I hope that those guys aren't being impacted by things that people are saying or media heads that are paid to give an opinion,” Danny Ainge said on his Thursday radio appearance on Toucher and Rich. “Hopefully, they're just talking it through, they don't pay too much attention to all of the noise out there, which one of them said and that's a good thing.”

It’s hard not to sometimes. Even if they themselves avoid it, there’s always someone on social media tagging their accounts every time something controversial comes up. Add to the mix people like me, who not only report straightforward facts, but also mix in analysis and opinion, and the pile of criticism gets to be pretty big. 

My personal goal is to be fair, and under normal circumstances, I’m around any player who wants to voice an objection to an opinion. The media is there to hold players accountable, but that accountability should work both ways. There’s no reason a player can't tell me I’m wrong. 

And perhaps that’s the last layer to the noise conversation that exacerbates the issue. COVID-19 has pushed us all into our corners and our only method of communication is through occasional Zoom calls. Casual conversations between the media and the players aren’t happening, nor are one-on-one interviews. Face-to-face interactions are simply better than virtual ones. 

But no matter what, there is one simple fact articulated by Jayson Tatum, who said “the outside noise, that's always going to be there." Even under better circumstances with more normalcy, there will always be loud, obnoxious voices out there. It’s up to the players to decide how they’ll deal with them. 

Sometimes they’ll get under people’s skin. They’re human. That will happen. Sometimes it will be an added motivation. Sometimes they’ll just ignore it altogether. They’ll figure it out along the way.

“It’s just growing pains. The better you get in your career, the more challenging obstacles you have,” Tristan Thompson said. “For us, for me and Kemba (Walker), it's on us to help them be the best they can be. And what I bring to the table is that I've played with greatness, so I know what it takes. And I just try to give them my input on what I see. And it's all about us. If it was easy, there'd be a lot of more superstars in this league.”