Propriety

In watching a recent episode of ESPN’s sports show, “The Jump,” I was struck by the following exchange. During a game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and an unnamed opponent the Cavaliers had a fairly substantial lead when a time-out was called. Just after the whistle blew, when all play had stopped, one player from the winning team dashed to the basket and did a “360 dunk” just for fun. The commentators at the game remarked that the move was out of place, uncalled for. It did appear that the winners were rubbing salt in the wound.

But those discussing the clip faulted the commentary on the grounds that the player was just having fun. He had recovered from a broken leg the previous year that threatened to keep him out of the game for the rest of his life and it was good to see him loose and having a good time. In addition, the leap showed he was back at full strength and he was merely reflecting the joy he had in once again playing the game he loved. Or some such thing. In any event, they thought the original commentary was out of order.

I thought about this. (I am retired and have a tendency to reflect on the ordinary, for my sins.) It occurred to me that the original comments were expressing a sense of propriety, something — along with a sense of restraint — that has been all but lost in our climate of immediate gratification and the public exhibition of whatever we happen to be feeling at the moment. The media obviously prefer to focus in on expressions of extreme joy or, preferably, great sadness, especially with tears. Can we have some tears, please? Just consider for a moment the previews we are shown for upcoming shows, or the highlights of past shows, stressing violence and the raw expression of emotion. We have pretty much forgotten what those commentators were trying to express: putting on a show when your team is leading and the other team is trying to keep it together is not called for. It is out of order. It shows lack of respect for the losing team that is already looking forward to another loss at the hands of a team with one of the best players on the planet.

In a more recent broadcast, the very verbose Stephen A. Smith saw “no problem whatever” with Labron James in street clothes, coaching over the head of the team’s coach while he was supposed to be taking a day off for a rest before the playoffs. He saw no impropriety whatever, since James has, in Smith’s view, “one of the greatest basketball minds of this generation.” The latter is true, I gather from the available evidence, but irrelevant to the question of whether James’ conduct was appropriate. It showed a lack of respect for the coach — who was chosen at mid-season at James’ request, apparently.

Propriety is knowing what is and what is not appropriate. The Greeks understood this, as they saw tragedy emerging whenever folks, especially those in power, lost their sense of what is appropriate. The cautious person tries to grasp the situation and knows what the appropriate response is. Sometimes it is complete silence. At other times it is applause, or possibly even shouting with glee. At yet other times it is deep-felt sadness. The situation makes demands on the sensitive spectator and the wise one is the one who knows just what the situation calls for. That is propriety; that is self-restraint.

We are learning during these dreary days of political preliminaries how unrestrained some of the main characters are in this melodrama we are all sick of by this time. The men on television commenting on a basketball game recognize that exuberance at a time when your team is ahead and the other team is feeling the pressure from an impending loss is inappropriate. They showed a feeling for propriety that is missing in so much of what we see and hear these days. Those clowns who faulted them for not applauding the show of exuberance on the part of a player who has recovered from a debilitating injury merely reflected the general lack of sense of what is and what is not appropriate, what the situation called for — as did Stephen A. Smith. It was fun to see a man dunk the basketball after such a serious injury. But it was inappropriate in the circumstances. Awareness of the difference is disappearing in this culture along with the moral compass that points us to the high ground.

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