Breaking news: New York is not exactly the kindest city to its professional athletes. But in recent years, it seems that intense scrutiny has progressed to such extreme levels that it borders on fabrication.
In March 2018, I wrote a column pleading with the New York Giants not to trade Odell Beckham Jr. and, well, we all know how that turned out. But the basis of my argument was that the public image of OBJ—the one proposing to kicking nets, the one supposedly creating rifts in locker rooms—was really quite far from the truth. Odell wasn’t just well worth whatever headaches he caused amongst the team; he wasn’t causing many headaches to begin with.
Today’s sports media, New York’s especially, loves to create storylines of toxic locker room presences, even when in actuality, those players are often the most well-liked on the roster. Odell is a character and an entertainer, sure, but he brought far more positive chemistry to the locker room, and contributions to the field, than distractions.
It therefore makes me sad to find myself feeling the need to write the same exact column, 20 months later, with a different player in the headline. Kyrie Irving, ladies and gentlemen, is not the evil villain that sports writers seem so determined to make you believe.
In Kyrie’s case, the rumors of being a locker room scourge predate his time in New York, reaching a climax at the end of last year’s season in Boston, in which the Celtics just never put the pieces together. Irving, based on his history and his superstar status, was unsurprisingly blamed for Boston’s perceived lack of unity and chemistry.
Was he at least partly to blame? Yes, especially after those unnecessary public comments about the team’s young players. But if you think the problem was Kyrie alone, you’re wrong. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum had disappointing seasons, Terry Rozier never accepted his role, Gordon Hayward was mostly nonexistent and Brad Stevens looked plain lost. Throw all of that together on a team that never lived up to expectations in a city that has ridiculously high expectations and you’re bound to get some locker room tension.
For Kyrie, Brooklyn was supposed to be a fresh start. That is, until ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan wrote a piece last week reporting that the Nets have been internally concerned by Irving’s frequent mood swings and erratic episodes. I’m not necessarily questioning the accuracy of MacMullan’s reporting. But it was yet another example of the media creating the illusion of a bad teammate without actually talking to any of his teammates.
This week, veteran and highly respected Nets sideline reporter Sarah Kustok raised doubts on MacMullan’s reporting, saying, “I respect these questions—from what happened in Boston, what happened in Cleveland—but I’m there every day. I’m at practice. I sit through the open gym. You’re there at games. You talk to the teammates. You know the players, many of them you’ve known for many years … and there’s been no issue.”
How can two respected reporters seemingly tell two contradictory stories? Here’s how: Kyrie, like Odell, is not perfect. I’m certain that Irving has already thrown a couple tantrums as a member of the Nets, I’m certain he has said some things he regrets, and I’m certain he’s not always the easiest guy to play alongside. But his teammates, like any of us, don’t expect perfection. Irving, like Beckham Jr., like all of us, can be both: A human being prone to regrettable behavior, and a positive friend and teammate.
Kyrie has spoken openly in the past about his battles with mental illness, and those things don’t magically go away with a change in scenery. Athletes are human too, and when Irving defended himself last Wednesday, he said exactly that.
“Who cares what ESPN says or what anyone says?” Irving said. “That’s gonna come with being one of the top players … Human beings have mood swings. It’s okay to be human. I don’t have to be perfect for anyone here, nor do I have to be perfect for the public. So I’m not here to dispel any perception, I’m just here to be myself.”
Irving is simply the latest misunderstood athlete in an all-too-common trend these days. Hopefully Brooklyn doesn’t quit on him like New York quit on Odell.
Andrew Morrison is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @asmor24.