Most times in basketball, a foul is just a foul. But sometimes, it can feel like so much more: a Rorschach test unearthing a person’s biases about the game, a window into a player’s thinking, a referendum on his entire career.
Was that a malicious kick or an involuntary swing? When does an outstretched arm morph into a punch? Can an on-court act be judged on its own or must the actor be considered, too?
A sequence of hard fouls across three different first-round N.B.A. playoff series — and the subsequent responses to them — has reinforced the extent to which the reputations of players, and the swirling narratives associated with them, seem to color the way the athletes, referees, league officials and fans process the action unfolding on the court.
After each instance, the players’ reputations were called into action in some way — as corroborating evidence, as a shield, as a liability.
It started last Monday, when Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors stomped his size 15 sneaker into the sternum of the Sacramento Kings big man Domantas Sabonis after Sabonis had grabbed Green while laying on the court. Afterward, the league suspended Green for one game, invoking not only the on-court incident but his entire body of work.
“The suspension was based in part on Green’s history of unsportsmanlike acts,” the N.B.A.’s statement read, evoking the veritable highlight reel of pugnacious gamesmanship in his career, but not referencing any specific previous infraction.
A few nights later, James Harden of the Philadelphia 76ers was ejected for hitting Nets forward Royce O’Neal below the waist on a drive to the basket. In the locker room after the game, Harden pointed toward his own reputation as part of his defense, mentioning that he had never before been thrown out of a game.
“I’m not labeled as a dirty player,” Harden said, alluding to the public’s perception of him. He should not be judged harshly, he implied, because he is, so to speak, not that guy. (Harden, of course, has often been labeled by critics as something else: a player willing to flop to draw a whistle and earn free throws.)
Then, two nights after that, Dillon Brooks of the Memphis Grizzlies was ejected for hitting LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers around the groin area while trying to defend him. The next day, Brooks, too, nodded toward his reputation, speculating that it must have preceded him on the play and informed the referees’ quick-fire decision to toss him.
“The media making me a villain, the fans making me a villain and then that just creates a whole different persona on me,” Brooks said. “So now you think I intended to hit LeBron James in the nuts.”
In sports, reputations are quickly formed and particularly hard to shed. Athletes conduct their professional lives in high definition. Their every move is broken down ad nauseam, scrutinized in slow motion, refracted through the eyes of analysts and commentators.
Heightening this dynamic is the fact that history looms large in the sports world, seeming to always be front of mind. Record books and bygone statistics are invoked every day. Fans keep big wins and heartbreaking losses etched onto their hearts.
“The past,” William Faulkner wrote, “is never dead. It’s not even the past.”
On top of everything else, the impulse to create two-dimensional characterizations about a person’s behavior, to reduce their action to moral terms, is widespread in the sports world, where fans and news media members often apply a storybook framework to the action, experts say.
“We create these schema, these cognitive shortcuts to read the world, and we’re quick to label individuals as friend or foe,” said Arthur Raney, a professor of communication at Florida State who has researched how emotions shape the sports viewing experience. “We do that with folks on the street, and we do that with entertainment and sports and politics and everything else.”
Raney added, “And once those frames, those schema, are set, they then serve as a lens for our expectations of the future.”
There will always be tension, then, around questions of whether an athlete’s reputation is fully justified.
Ndamukong Suh, a longtime defensive tackle in the N.F.L., developed a reputation as a dirty player after a seemingly countless log of bad hits, fines and suspensions. Suh has pushed back against this characterization at various points in his career — though it is questionable whether anyone might be convinced otherwise.
“Before you pass judgment on somebody, always take the time to get to know them, meet them, have coffee with them, whatever it may be and then be able to go from there,” Suh said in 2019.
Many might similarly scoff at the claims of innocence of Brooks, who led the N.B.A. with 18 technical fouls in the regular season and made headlines earlier in the playoffs for taunting James (“I don’t care. He’s old.”) — essentially casting himself as a villain without anyone’s help.
Still, when humans are involved in adjudicating behavior in sports, there will always be unanswerable questions about how those decisions are made. Did a player’s bad reputation lead officials to call more penalties or fouls on borderline plays? How many more fines and suspensions does a player earn after developing a reputation as someone who deserves them?
“Generally, officials at the highest level do not hold grudges, but in a preconscious, mythic way are influenced by narratives,” said Stephen Mosher, a retired professor of sports management at Ithaca College.
Reputations can be suffocating. Dennis Rodman’s reputation as an erratic and unsportsmanlike competitor — developed with the Detroit Pistons and honed with the San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls — overshadows his status as one of the greatest defensive players in N.B.A. history. Metta Sandiford-Artest, years after his involvement in the fan-player brawl known as the Malice at the Palace in 2004, when he was still known as Ron Artest, developed a reputation as a mellow veteran, but only after changing his name and publicly reckoning with his mental health.
And reputations can feel problematic when they seem in any part derived from race. Raney said the potential for this was higher in sports that were “racialized” — that is, closely associated with one race. He mentioned the tennis star Serena Williams, who is Black, as an example of an athlete who may have developed an undue reputation at times because of the color of her skin in the context of her sport. A recent study in European soccer revealed the dramatic differences in the way television commentators spoke about white players (praising their smarts and work ethic) versus nonwhite players (highlighting physical traits like strength and speed) and how far-reaching the impact of these perceptions could be.
“I’d look directly at the story tellers, announcers, color people, for why these perceptions carry such weight,” Mosher said.
Sports leagues invite speculation about the role reputations play in competition because of the apparently subjective nature of officiating.
Earlier in the game from which Harden was ejected, 76ers center Joel Embiid blatantly tried to kick the Nets’ Nic Claxton between the legs. Embiid, who has largely maintained a reputation as a clean player, was not ejected or suspended. Harden and Brooks were not suspended after their ejections, either. (The N.B.A., like other sports leagues, takes into account a player’s disciplinary history when doling out punishments.)
In explaining the disparity of outcomes between Embiid and Harden, the N.B.A. has asserted that the motive mattered far less than the outcome, and that each incident, even if it felt similar to another, needed to be evaluated on its own terms. No two shots to the groin are alike, essentially.
“You have to be responsible for your actions outside the realm of intent,” Monty McCutchen, the N.B.A.’s head of referee development, said in an interview on ESPN.
But many people’s minds went to a similar place. What would have happened if someone else — say, Draymond Green? — had kicked out the same way Embiid had.