Sensationalized Narratives in Sports Media

By Noah Berkowitz

In today’s world, there is more entertainment available for consumption than ever before. Creatives are able to tell stories to audiences of thousands — sometimes even millions — of people. These stories aren’t only available in fictional media content, but also throughout pro sports. Narratives within professional athletics allow people to invest themselves into the game. For example, the 2011 NBA finals is an entertaining series of basketball games to watch as is, but it becomes significantly more interesting when told as the story of a sick Dirk Nowitzki single handedly beating a stacked Miami Heat team with superstars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, after carrying the Dallas Mavericks through the playoffs against some of the best teams the Western Conference has ever seen. Underdog stories such as the 2011 finals draw people in and engage audiences, as they can relate to the players like they would characters in a movie or TV show. However, athletes can’t always control the narratives surrounding them, and fans are quick to buy into stories even when there is evidence that contradicts the narratives they choose to believe. Not all athletes appreciate their reputations, personal lives, and relationships being used as marketing tools, and no athlete has been more vocal about their disapproval of media meddling than Kyrie Irving.

Kyrie was selected first in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he was the star player. In 2014, LeBron James resigned with the Cavs, pushing Kyrie into a reduced role. In 2016, the Cavaliers won an NBA championship, and in 2017, Kyrie requested a trade. From 2017 to 2019, Kyrie played for the Boston Celtics. In the summer of 2019, Kyrie signed with the Brooklyn Nets in free agency, and has played for Brooklyn since then. Despite his incredible play, 6 all-star appearances, and championship ring, the narratives surrounding Kyrie’s career for the most part don’t paint him in a positive light.

According to the character arc manufactured by the media and believed by many fans, Kyrie is a pseudo-intellectual, melodramatic diva who left Cleveland to leave LeBron’s shadow and become his own man. While on the Celtics, he created issues in the locker room with disparaging comments made about other players as well as his insistence on the Earth being flat, and is the reason that the Celtics fell short in the playoffs in 2018. A terrible teammate incapable of being a leader, Kyrie paired up with superstar Kevin Durant in Brooklyn with the Nets to chase a championship. While in Brooklyn, he continued to cause issues in the locker room and, being a diva, refused to play a significant amount of games. At least, that’s what audiences are told by talking heads on their TV screens.

While Kyrie Irving was arguably at one point (or still is) a flat earther, the other plot points in this story are either spun out of context, exaggerated, or blatantly false. Kyrie did leave the Cavs to avoid playing with LeBron, but not out of jealousy, animosity or hubris, but just to grow as a player. Celtics player Marcus Smart has said Kyrie was a great teammate, and it seems that Kyrie is on good terms with his former teammates from the Celtics based on his pre-game interactions with them on the court when they face off. Kyrie grew up in New York, and the reason he went to play in Brooklyn to be closer to his family. Kyrie may be a bit of an oddball, but looking at his significant activism efforts, he seems to be a genuine good guy who may lack a filter when speaking to the media. He supported the Sioux tribe at Standing Rock, financially supported WNBA players who refused to play during their season restart during COVID, he supported the Sioux at Standing Rock, produced a documentary about Breonna Taylor and bought George Floyd’s family a house. When the NBA organization ignored human rights abuses in China to protect their bottom line, Kyrie supported the protestors in Hong Kong when even LeBron James wouldn’t. There are more examples to give, but it would take too long to list all of them.

Kyrie has been outspoken against the media for a long time now. At the beginning of the current season, he took a $25,000 fine for refusing to speak with the press, and after taking a 7 game hiatus for personal reasons later in the season, the media ate him alive. Stephen A. Smith suggested he retire, as he clearly didn’t care about basketball. After his hiatus, Kyrie met with the press over Zoom, stating, “The thing that’s pretty interesting in watching is when you take a break from everything, there’s just so many assumptions about what’s going on, and so many people feel like they know me best. They have no idea who I am”. Kyrie went on to state that he needed a pause from the game for his mental health. Stephen A. Smith fired back that the fans deserved to know that information before Kyrie left.

The entitlement that audiences feel they have to athletes’ and other celebrities’ personal lives is staggering. Having millions of fans watching and commenting on your every move must be anxiety inducing. Stephen A.’s suggestion that Kyrie needs to be open about his mental health and provide audiences a window into his personal life seems counter-intuitive.

Nearly all celebrities these days struggle to maintain privacy, constantly appearing in tabloids, being discussed on social media, and maintaining connections with their fans online. Athletes are a special case though. While actors, musicians and other entertainers may unwillingly appear in magazines and on twitter, being talked about isn’t a part of their job. Pro athletes are not only required to play their sport, but to be a part of a broader story in a way that is invasive to their personal lives. In that way it’s almost like reality television. Real people give up their privacy and control over their reputation to be used in dramatic tales. The only key differences are that reality TV audiences in this day and age are aware that the content they’re viewing is sensationalized, and reality stars know going in that they won’t be able to control how they are presented. Sports fans more often than not seem to buy into sports narratives, and while players may be aware that their words can be twisted, many of them just want to play the game they’ve trained for their entire lives.

Kyrie Irving is human just like the rest of us, he just so happens to be one of the best basketball players in the world. When he entered the NBA draft, he just wanted to play the sport he loves at a high level. He isn’t the best at getting his ideas across, and the media takes advantage of this, frequently intentionally taking his words out of context. Despite being unprepared for the constant attention that comes with being a superstar athlete, he relishes in the influence he has to create positive change. In his interview after his hiatus, Kyrie said, “Now that it’s become bigger, and there’s more of a responsibility I have in this position I’m in, I’m grateful because I’m able to stand on the platform with others alongside me that have sacrificed and are going through similar things… with everything going on politically, socially… I wanna make changes daily… whatever my legacy is after that as a person, that’s all I really care about”.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store