Steve McPherson
Friday November 13th, 2015

During Wednesday night’s broadcast of the much-hyped first meeting between the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, Jeff Van Gundy lit this hot little fire blossom:

“I would also like the Dallas fans to acknowledge the sheer lunacy and absurdity that they’re booing DeAndre Jordan tonight, and they’ll be cheering someone like Greg Hardy on Sunday. That, to me, is absurd. All this guy did was change his mind.”

Fans in the American Airlines Center were booing Jordan with brio, of course, because of his well-publicized off-season dalliance with the Mavericks: first he agreed to sign with them, then had second thoughts and started a complicated shell game with Mark Cuban, then eventually re-signed with the Clippers at the 11th hour. His explanation of exactly why all this was necessary left a lot to be desired, particularly for Mavericks fans. Fanbases in general rarely need much of a reason to feel aggrieved, but the one in Dallas has a pretty strong case.

Someone without a real rooting interest in an early-season matchup between the Clippers and the Mavs and who also happens to think Greg Hardy seems like a real piece of garbage probably heard Van Gundy and went, “Yeah, damn straight.” Domestic violence is indisputably worse than getting cold feet about a professional decision at the last minute. It’s straight up illegal, which nothing about Jordan’s dalliance was, not by the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement nor the laws of Texas and California.

As an immediate, gut-level response, that’s probably fine. But what is Van Gundy saying, and how well is he saying it? In-the-moment sports commentary is rarely known for its finely nuanced discussions — it is the realm of hyperbole, overreaction and contentiousness, and thank goodness for that. Van Gundy is good at it, too, especially when it comes to holding moral authority over the game. He hates flopping, hates that superstars get different calls than roleplayers (or rather, is fine with it but just wants the NBA to publicly acknowledge it happens). He hates that players get technical fouls for running away. He hates wishy-washiness from supposed franchise players. It’s a pretty long list.

He may earnestly believe all this stuff, but he also believes it even harder when he gets to talk about it on the air. That is his job, and this curmudgeonly stuff fills out the character he plays on TV. It has a whiff of contrarianism, but it generally avoids the self-aggrandizement of many sports talking heads, and also the blatant homerism of many local announcing teams.

It is, however, extremely reductive — like, to the point where it has very little value at all — to equate everyone booing Jordan with everyone cheering for Hardy. Plenty of basketball fans don’t care about other sports at all; they may actively dislike football and find its culture of institutionalized violence and disregard for players’ health despicable or they may just find it boring. But they can hold those opinions and still loudly cheer for the Dallas Mavericks, an act which on Wednesday night meant some hearty boos for DeAndre Jordan.

That brings us to another facet of the situation that Van Gundy’s mini-rant glosses over: crowds in arenas are, by their very nature, not dealing in nuance. What, honestly, are their options for collective expression? Cheering, booing, chants of “M-V-P” and “REFS SUCK,” and, very occasionally, more specific chants like Wednesday night’s “DEANDRE SUCKS.” That last one right there is in fact the pinnacle of non-nuance when it comes to an entire crowd voicing its opinion. Chants aren’t put up to votes and carefully messaged and vetted for maximum impact. They’re just yelled into the void in the hopes that everyone else picks them up; the noise is the point, and the reason they exist. Chants are only capable of channeling the basest instincts of standing up for your guy and shouting down the other guy.

On the point of how fan loyalty works, though, Van Gundy is on to something. Loyalty to one’s own team and moral outrage over a player’s decision not to sign with that team is where morality and blind self-interest collide. It’s not all Mavs fans, but it would be shocking if you couldn’t find at least a few who are still cheering the Cowboys while besmirching Jordan’s fundamental character for what ultimately is a messily-handled business decision. It’s also not wrong to point out that fans are most high-minded and moral when it aligns with their rooting interests.

But here’s the thing: The DeAndre Jordan fiasco is just about the perfect pitch for the theater of professional sports. Dallas Mavericks fans taking out their frustration on him by getting the chance to lustily boo him when he comes to town (and get some even sweeter revenge when their team actually wins) is exactly the size and weight of injustice that the pageantry of professional sports can handle well.

By contrast, Hardy’s actions are those of an individual, but they empty out into more pervasive cultural questions about domestic violence in particular, and violence more generally. The NFL itself is up for scrutiny in the case for their murky handling (or non-handling) of the situation. Booing Greg Hardy isn’t going to change the terrible ways women get treated in this country every day. It needs to and should be changed, but being the change you want to see in the world doesn’t start with booing at a sports event.

Booing Jordan is the exactly right-sized response to an exactly sports-sized thing. Their vocal disdain is a ritual, and it’s all they really have available. It’s futile, but soothes that primal part of every sports fan that aligns the world against their team so their eventual triumph feels meaningful. It’s theater, and Van Gundy’s reprobation of the booing is theater, too. 

Neither of them, though, are capable of genuinely addressing the pervasive cultural issue of domestic violence; neither of them are interested in it, either. That’s a different and more important conversation, and it’s one that, like anything important, is going to be discussed at a different volume.

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