Perception is hell. It’s visceral, and almost always wrong, and in a word it’s hell. Perception allows undue attention to the simplistic part of our mind, the fight or flight arena that scoffs at empirical data, fly’s in the face of logic and makes snap decisions based on instinct alone. It’s the reason first impressions are lasting impressions and hallmark makes a goddamn truck load on the belief in love at first sight.
To the sports fan perception, and the part of our brain which forms the preternatural reaction, can be lasting for a reason. Sport connects us to the innocent childhood nature of play. No matter how sophisticated our knowledge of the game, no matter the inter-contextual importance we interpret in the game, part of our consciousness still acknowledges that it is in fact just a game. The problem, and where perception becomes hell, is that the pro-game is played by adults, some of whom have adult sized controversies of which the complexity outweighs the abilities of the visceral, sports section of the mind.
Put it this way. We think we know Monta Ellis, don’t we? He’s the guy who’s been putting asses in seats in Golden State despite their rocky record over the last few years. He’s the guy who’s legend has grown to the extent that the Bay Area went into a mild outrage whenever his name was hinted in a trade rumor earlier this year. He’s the missile who plays without recognition of danger and we admire him for it. We admire him so we know him, know this man we’ve never met outside the anguish, joy, anger and inhibition on display on his face and through the television every night. This is what perception does, it extrapolates the knowledge of a whole person from a single, simplistic aspect of an athlete’s nature.
We don’t really know Monta. The truth is the one-dimensional character fans identify in players is rarely, if ever, true to form. But mostly the perception is enough, because athletes rarely transcend outside of the on-the-court role in an important or controversial way. We have our lives, they have theirs. However, now Monta is caught up in a serious, important sexual harassment accusation and the fan must detach themselves from their perception of Monta in order to objectively contemplate the seriousness of such an accusation.
We don’t know the accuser, and because of this it is easy to see her as an unwelcome visitor, a woman in the man’s world of sports; there’s an unfortunate undercurrent here, a belief that she should understand the risks inherent in becoming involved in a man’s world. But the business of sports isn’t a gentlemen’s club, the business is, and should be, open to any woman who enjoys the game and wants to make a career of it. Women are fans the NBA. Women are employees of the NBA. If these allegations are true, Monta should have the book thrown at him, and if he is found guilty of sexual harassment, it will be his fault, and not the fault of a woman in a man’s world.
This isn’t to say Monta is guilty. But taking into account Monta’s lawyers, Golden State’s lawyers, and the NBA/Sports PR machine she has almost no chance in persuading the narrative, making it difficult for the fan to understand even though this happened in sports, that preternatural arena, it happened on the job, where there are laws in place to rightly protect people from sexual harassment.
We have precedence for this kind of accusation. Remember Brett Favre’s accuser? Remember how Sportscenter paraded the skimpiest pictures of his accuser once an hour on the hour? Remember how the blog culture reduced the argument of sexual harassment to the joke of athletes sending pictures of themselves over the phone? It was easy to view Favre’s accuser as a groupie and not a fan, even though she was hired by the Jets and was allegedly on the job while Favre sent her the same type of pictures Monta is accused of sending.
The Monta case won’t get half the PR of the Favre case, but don’t expect the narrative against the accuser to change. Fans need athletes to stay within the realm they are perceived to be, if only to keep the sport a game. But because of this the deck is already stacked against the accuser, sexual harassment is complicated and falls outside the realm of the one-dimensional athlete seen on television every night. I can’t tell you who’s innocent and who’s guilty, but I can tell you the narrative road fans will be led down, the easy road where the accuser is a gold-digger and the athlete is reduced to a joke about cell phone pics because sports can thwart our ability to see the complexity clearly, through the simplicity of the visceral. Perception is hell.