LeBron James And NBA Stars Showing Emotions Has A Big Impact
LeBron James choked back tears as Boyz II Men sang the national anthem. It had been five days since Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna died in a helicopter crash, and a camera zeroed in on James' face as he cried in front of millions of people nationwide in the Lakers' first game since the tragedy.
After Bryant's death, the most successful and powerful athletes in America showed their raw emotions to huge television audiences, marking a sharp break from the stereotype that men -- and especially "macho athletes" -- aren't supposed to cry.
"Men should be emotional when something hits your heart," James told Sports Illustrated. "When something feels a certain way, there's no reason you shouldn't be emotional about it. The emotion comes from, especially in this instance, somebody who has paved the way and done so many great things in our sport."
Bryant's death cast a shockwave of grief over the NBA world, forcing many players to publicly grieve the loss of their idol. Players hugged and held each other, they cried through video tributes at sold-out arenas, they teared up in their post-game media conferences, they wrote Bryant's jersey numbers, 8 and 24, on their shoes, and they took 24-second shot clock violations and eight-second backcourt violations.
Naturally and unwittingly, they helped forward the narrative that it's okay for men to show emotions.
"Absolutely, no question," said John Callaghan, a retired professor of biological sciences at USC who has a PhD in the sociopsychology of sport. "For years and years, we had to refrain and restrain ourselves and it wasn't good to show what our inner feelings were like. We had to be manly and bottle everything up. Things have changed. Our society has changed."
Two days after Bryant's death, Shaquille O'Neal and Jerry West went on national television and bared their hearts in a special on TNT. O'Neal choked back tears as he acknowledged that this was the sharpest pain he had felt in a while. West, who was a father-figure to Bryant, cried and said, "I don't know if I can get over this, I really don't."
It was uncharted television. It was impactful. And it resonated around the globe.
It gave tacit permission for young boys and girls everywhere to cry, too.
"They're showing the example that it's okay to let your emotions out and not keep them all hidden inside," said Mychal Thompson, who won two NBA championships with the Showtime Lakers. "It doesn't make you less of a man to show in public your emotions. It shows you're a human."
Sports culture hasn't always been so open and accepting.
There are many examples of athletes getting mocked or ridiculed for showing their emotions, perhaps the most famous being when Michael Jordan cried at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2009. An image of the tear-streaked Jordan became a meme shared by millions. There's even an app called "The Crying Jordan Meme Generator" that thousands of people have downloaded to superimpose a crying Jordan onto their own photos.
But that didn't stop Jordan from crying again at Bryant's memorial as he called him his little brother.
"Now he's got me," Jordan said in front of nearly 20,000 people at Staples Center on Feb. 24, millions more on television. "I'll have to look at another crying meme for the next --." Before he could finish that sentence, Jordan was cut off by uproarious laughter and applause from the crowd.
When Adam Morrison was traded to the Lakers in 2009, he was mocked for publicly weeping after Gonzaga blew a 17-point lead to lose to UCLA in their Sweet Sixteen game in 2006.
"I just got traded to the best team in the world, and there's maybe 10 pictures taped up of me crying my eyes out, like: Welcome to the team," Morrison told Sports Illustrated in 2017. "They wanted to see how I would react. It was kind of a test, like, 'You gonna get mad about this or not?'"
Nowadays, that sort of thing would be frowned upon.
"For too long, we didn't allow athletes to show their feelings," Callaghan said. "But now we realize the mental side of sports performance...If you bottle up so many of these issues, then you're actually impairing their mental health and mental development and that can have a disastrous affect upon their performance...The control of emotions and the display of emotions, when necessary, are all part of the mental health picture."
It's been an adjustment for some players, such as Danny Green, who grew up thinking men weren't supposed to cry.
"When I was younger, during those days, it was not cool to show emotions," Green said. "It's not manly, I guess. But now, it's a different time, a different generation. It's okay to show emotions. It doesn't make you any less of a man, less masculine or uncool."
Green said the faces of the league helped change things, even if they were teased at the time.
Chris Bosh cried after Miami lost to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals. Kevin Durant shed tears after losing to Miami in the 2012 NBA Finals and again during his MVP speech in 2014. James cried when he carried Cleveland to their first-ever NBA championship in 2016.
"When you see the top people that you look up to, the top superstars showing their emotions, it shows kids it's okay to let some things out and show emotions," Green said.
Quinn Cook was forced to deal with his emotions when he was 14 years old. His father died and his mother made him see a therapist.
"I didn't want to do it because I didn't think it was cool," Cook said. "I thought it was weak doing it. But I ended up actually going. He helped me out a lot with that. In college, Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] was big on that as well. As you get older, you see there's no shame in showing your emotions."
Then there's players such as Avery Bradley, who grew up in a home where showing emotions was encouraged.
"If I needed to cry, I needed to cry," Bradley said. "To this day, sometimes I might watch a little Disney movie and it will probably make me cry. I don't really care."
Bradley said that Bryant's death humanized athletes.
"It takes off that whole Superman cape in a way," Bradley said. "Seeing one of our own brothers, what happened. I think we're all human. And people forget that as professional athletes we have feelings too. This was a moment where I feel like everybody had a chance to see that."
Callaghan said over the last 20 years, it's slowly become more acceptable for male athletes to show their emotions.
The outpouring of grief from superstars around the NBA after Bryant's death moved that phenomenon forward another lightyear.
"The world has changed in that regard and opened us," Callaghan said. "It's become much more prevalent and much more acceptable. And quite rightly so."
For James, crying on national television after Bryant's death was natural. It was normal. It was real.
It was necessary.
"He's hit home for so many people and can relate to so many people," James told Sports Illustrated. "And people have personal relationships with him. And some people who don't [know him] were inspired by him. So just that level of emotion is just organic."