Decades ago, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart summed up the definition of obscenity with these words: “I know it when I see it.”
Lately, a lot of national sports observers believe they have seen the definition of obscenity in the NCAA’s flawed investigation into what nevertheless was a rogue athletic program at the University of Miami, and in questions reportedly put to potential draftees at the recent NFL combine including the sinister, “Do you like girls?”
So, yeah, it has been a field day for the self-righteous and the politically correct. Yet curiously, what has most offended me (I, too, know obscenity when I see it) doesn’t seem to have bothered hardly anyone else. I refer to Magic Johnson’s cavalier offer to put up $1 million for the next NBA Dunk Contest as motivation to get LeBron James to play.
Said Johnson, kneeling at King James’ throne: “Please, LeBron, get in the dunk contest. I’m going to put up a million dollars. A million dollars from Magic to LeBron. Please get in the dunk contest. I go every year. I want to see you out there. A million to the winner.”
Now before this goes any further, let me say that I realize that if James were to take the offer and win he almost certainly would donate the $1 million to charity. But that doesn’t change my disgust for the casual context of this whole thing.
The biggest problem facing our nation is the debt and irresponsible spending. Magic Johnson offers up his $1 million for a dunk contest – it doesn’t get any more irrelevant than that – with the same ease you or I would offer someone a dollar. Understand: I don’t begrudge Magic or LeBron or any other sports superstar being rich. But there is something psychologically damaging about, in the public square that is national television, speaking of $1 million like it’s just so much lint in your pocket.
At some level, it devalues the hard work of everyone from police officers and teachers to nurses and firefighters. At some level, it implies that the FantasyLand in which Magic and LeBron live is normal. It’s not. It’s a place of privilege that, even if earned, makes me blush from the nonchalance of its day-to-day excess.
Look, I love sports as much as anybody and probably more than most. But moments like these reduce America to a huge and shallow entertainment pool where no one has the muscles for swimming beneath the surface of celebrity. Our political leaders can’t agree on anything beyond mutual disdain and distrust, schools are failing, jobs are still too scarce, and if this economy were an NBA team it would be the Washington Wizards.
Magic’s generally a likeable guy. So is LeBron. This isn’t about that. Magic made his offer because he could, because he’s been so rich for so long he doesn’t know any other way. He wants to see LeBron in the dunk contest and he’s got stacks of money lying around like so many pairs of extra sneakers in his closet.
Much of America can’t spare a dime, but Magic can spare a $1 million and doesn’t mind begging: “Please, LeBron.” Sorry, but that is obscene.
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. He and Jon Albright host the “Jon & Don Show” on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays.