There is a particular film trope wherein the villain, despite all of the requisite villainy that would lead to their villain status, must join up with the hero in order for the central conflict to be resolved. We could, if we’d like, call this the “Jack Sparrow Effect” if we want to choose a label that might be most widely recognized. But you do you—the “Negan Corollary” for you Walking Dead fans; the “Iceman Occurrence” if you’re one of those people so willing to ignore Maverick’s own culpability—whatever best fits your particular media tastes, the idea is more or less the same.
In film, this is fun; we enjoy this act of absolution for the villain, and we respect the hero’s ability to see the usefulness (or even the inherent good) in someone that was once merely an impediment. In sports, however, this is a bit more complicated. In its most innocuous manifestation, this is the Vikings signing Brett Favre, Johnny Damon winning a World Series with the Yankees, or Hulk Hogan’s founding of the nWo at Bash at the Beach. I would never deign to criticize the emotional upheaval that such instances elicit in a sports fan, but if we are being intellectually honest, these are relatively trivial matters. There are worse versions of the “Jack Sparrow Effect” for a sports fan—ask any Cleveland Browns fan who suddenly found their cursor hovering over the “Buy Now” button for a Deshaun Watson jersey.
It’s a phenomenon with which I am not unfamiliar. In 2015, when the Dallas Cowboys signed defensive end Greg Hardy less than a year after he assaulted and allegedly attempted to strangle his then-girlfriend, I struggled with my fandom. But I was younger, certainly more naïve and disconnected from the greater social implications of affording a person of that ilk such an opportunity, and besides, Hardy was a defensive end, by no means expected to be a marketable star of the team. Ah, the sweet release of self-justification.
Yet over the past week I’ve felt a different sort of internal conflict. I have talked a lot of shit about Kyrie Irving. Like, a lot. I have snickered to nobody in particular at every ESPN pundit’s attempt to give him a pass for his behavior and bigotry. I have little room in my own capacity for grace when it comes to blatant public health misinformation and downright unabashed anti-semitism. And I don’t feel the need to justify my labeling Kyrie as such; Kyrie has done that well enough on his own.
What I do want to spend some time ruminating on is what I am to do when such a player is added to the team I root for. The Dallas Mavericks traded a few solid pieces (and from what I can tell, good dudes) in the form of Dorian Finney-Smith and Spencer Dinwiddie. From a basketball perspective, at least for this year, it’s an incredible deal. Dinwiddie is a pretty good secondary ball-handler who can get hot, and DFS certainly enshrined himself as a top-tier Thee-and-D guy with his absolute shutdown of Devin Booker in the 2022 playoffs, but anyone acting as if the Brooklyn Nets didn’t trade away a dollar for two quarters is lying to themselves. Again, that is if we are considering the basketball alone.
But, of course, we know a basketball team does not simply only play basketball. There is the matter of trust and accountability between players, the significance of the players to the community at large, and, most crucially here, national perception and public image. Is such a thing worth tarnishing in the interest of a modest increase in your championship odds? Was it for Greg Hardy? Was it for Deshaun Watson?
My brother once described the process of rooting for an athlete who might be a bad guy as “separating the art from the artist.” I know he didn’t invent that phrase—it’s the same justification one uses for listening to Michael Jackson or reading Harry Potter—but I thought thinking of an athlete in the same way we do flawed artists was a fascinating mental exercise.
And what I came to was this: my brother is wrong. We can, if we so choose, separate art from artist because in enjoying a song, a movie, a novel, we are not necessarily rooting for the individual success of the human being. Sure, we’re asking our brains to engage in some pretty advanced gymnastics in discounting the ways in which our engagement in the art leads to their success, but still, liking someone’s art does not necessitate wishing for their success. But rooting for an athlete? Your enjoyment of them is directly tied to good performance, not to some abstract notion of what you might consider good, but something objectively measured by those nerds at the Elias Sports Bureau and, most importantly, reflected in box scores and team records.
This, I submit, is what makes rooting for a villainous athlete all the more complicated. Kyrie’s personal foibles are, in some ways, born from his greatness as a player. When Kyrie executes an air-tight spin move, seemingly glides down the baseline, and finishes an up-and-under between two hulking forwards like a child stealing dessert before dinner, it is done with a complete contempt for its inherent danger and improbability. It’s what makes him so incredible to watch. But is also a reflection of his disregard for accountability, his arrogance, and his stubbornness. When these traits are coupled with what I would certainly consider a flawed view of the world, the result is, well, Hebrews to Negroes and a deleted apology.
Can Kyrie’s unmitigated confidence as a player be preserved while simultaneously repairing the more unsavory aspects of his character? Of course! People can work on themselves. They can learn and grow. Or, at the very least, they can shut up. Can that happen in one half of an NBA season? I doubt it. And so it is here we get to the crux of the matter with regards to the Jack Sparrow Effect: when Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann opted to join forces with the notoriously unpredictable Sparrow, they were doing with the full knowledge that his fickle loyalties, his instincts for self-preservation above all else, and his hedonistic impulses could see them splashing into a briny grave. But they also recognized that those traits are what made Sparrow a great pirate—somehow, the alchemy of his various Machiavellian inclinations produced an unconquerable ally. It’s like working with the biggest pain in the ass in class on a group project, knowing that if you can just put up with their shit, you’ll be riding the high tides come report card time.
Which is where the Mavericks find themselves now. They, and their fans, must ask an important question: can I put aside my trepidations—and to some degree, my morals—and embrace that the capricious nature of this player that tore down a historically promising Brooklyn roster and brought on the rightful ire of thousands might be a fundamental ingredient of his success?
I decided I couldn’t. And then, on February 8th, I turned on the TV as the Mavs took on the Clippers. Less than four minutes into the first quarter, Dwight Powell holds the ball just inside the top of the key. Kyrie, a few feet away, seems to dance with Kawhi Leonard: he starts to drive down the alley, takes a hard step back to his right, throws a swim move Greg Hardy himself would be jealous of, and cuts to the basket. Powell offloads a short pass to him, and Kyrie stops his cut as quickly as he started it and takes a jumper over Ivica Zubac. As the ball went through its high and short arc to the basket, I clenched a single fist, not in frustration or disgust, but in triumph. I was cheering for Kyrie. Despite my every self-righteous proclamation, I was powerless to avoid the separation of art from artist. The ball touched briefly the back of the rim and splashed down in a way that would make any plank-walking pirate shudder.
As sports fans, we often have about as much agency as the ball itself. We are compelled to move in the ways in which the players on the court move us. When the game ends, and we are returned to the storage area of our own conscience, we are free to judge the players (and, more crucially, ourselves) as we see fit. But like Kyrie and plenty of other troubled athletes that have come before him, the passions and emotions that govern our indignations off the court also govern our fandom on it.
Kyrie finished that game with 24 points and five assists en route to a 110-104 win despite the absence of Luka Dončić . When asked after the game how excited he was to play with Luka upon his return, Kyrie said that he appreciates players like Dončić who “are selfless” and “can do the little things.” What occurred to me is that we all hope, as empathetic and ethical citizens, to be as capable as a point guard in being selfless and doing the little things; we strive to be good consumers, to be aware enough to sacrifice our own pleasures for a greater moral good, and many of us fail more often than we succeed. But maybe we should forgive ourselves these transgressions, at least occasionally. There are distant shores to reach and treasures to be found, and if it ever becomes too much to bear, the plank is always waiting.