Our access to athletes continues to grow, yet the language we use to describe them remains the same.
German Philosopher, Gottlob Frege’s Sense and Reference is about how we understand truth, sentences, and proper nouns. An example of what Frege posits are “Superman is Superman” and “Clark Kent is Superman,” or, for those following Mad Men, “Don Draper is Don Draper” and “Dick Whitman is Don Draper.” We can have different assumptions or thoughts about Superman (the referent) without having these same assumptions about Kent (the sense)—or Draper (the referent) and Whitman (the sense)—if you don’t know that Kent is Superman.
Referents are proper nouns and objects; senses are concepts.
When we say, “this player is a cancer to his team,” the word “cancer” is being used as a concept, but if cancer isn’t a proper noun or a referent then why do we call it the Big C? Here I’m less interested in talking about philosophy—I can’t overstate the instructiveness of the philosophy podcast The Partially Examined Life—and more interested in talking about athletes like, say, Dwight Howard. Howard’s mulling over his career trajectory—on and off the court—with the Magic this year, with his play somehow both removed and amazing, have got me thinking about the modern athlete.
As our access to athletes through third-parties dwindle—gone are the days of Tony Kornheiser profiles or John Feinstein’s A Season on the Brink, a topic to address at length later—our access to athletic brands are ever-growing. The biggest problem for detractors of Lebron James doesn’t have to do with something he did on the court, rather they stem from the actions of a television special he organized. Despite GM David Stern’s best efforts to fine players (Knick J.R. Smith) and owners (Miami Heat’s Mickey Arison) alike for their comments on Twitter, progress dictates that players want, and will continue, to share their lives on their own terms.
As we come to understand players more as their actual selves and less as cogs in the machine of a team. The origins of calling players cancers to their teams are rooted in the idea of team as organism—the originality of the players are expressed only in how they play and not who they are. If a player was sabotaging his team, he was doing so as a cell in a larger living thing; the attack wasn’t personal. These days are over.
Now that we find ourselves entrenched in the era of Big-Threes—of superstars leaving town to join their friends, of brands—we’ve inherited the loss of “the team” and its sanctity. Team chemistry matters as much as it ever did as recent experiments in Linsanity demonstrate. It’s just that players are less beholden to the construct of the team so as much as they’re beholden to themselves—Lebron saying they’re “my talents” and he can take them wherever he wants. And this isn’t just at play with superstars: Derek Fisher, the presumed heart of the Lakers, was traded when his talents waned. If the Lakers didn’t bypass speedy point guards like Chris Paul or Ty Lawson or Aaron Brooks in playoffs past despite Fisher, the move could have come quicker.
Thinking about athletes as cancers to a team may be offensive, but for certain it’s antiquated. Teams are no longer normal cells, if they ever were. Using cancer is commonplace and that’s what makes it something worthy of our consideration. When pressed about calling Charlie Villlanueva a “cancer patient,” Kevin Garnett recanted and retreated into figurative meaning, later calling Villanueva “cancerous to your team and our league” on—where else?—Twitter. Once it was couched in figurative language all was forgiven because talking in this manner is a given. Be it on the court, or in a Grantland podcast (to whom Monte Ellis is, apparently, “a cancer for your team”), or in a bar, this language doesn’t inspire ire.
Of course, people can say whatever they want. If anything, my awareness of this language is a coping mechanism. On Saturday, I awoke to the news that my friend and mentor died of throat cancer four days before his 26th birthday. Finishing my penultimate semester on campus some two thousands miles away from home, I’ve been resigned to miss the funeral. I suppose the silver lining is not having to board an airplane since I’ve been frantic in keeping myself near other people or even voices—podcasts: the gift of getting out one’s head—and there isn’t an activity that cultivates existential loneliness quite like air travel. Crying in front of a group of strangers just trying to get home—would that make me a cancer of the airplane?
It’s anyone’s business to say and do whatever they want in the short time they have. Just know that when you’re characterizing the actions of 26-year old “Superman” Dwight Howard as cancerous, the Big C, you’re making the same characterizations about Clark Kent.