When Kyrie Irving requested and received center stage on ESPN’s First Take show to discuss his request to be traded from the Cleveland Cavaliers this summer, details surrounding why he wanted to leave remained unclear—or at least remained open to speculation.
But the interchange that took place when Stephen A. Smith asked Irving if he spoke with LeBron James of his intentions to request a trade—to which Irving immediately replied “no”—unmistakably revealed a problem in all of us worth further review.
“Why not?” Smith asked.
“Why would I have to?” Irving replied.
“If you don’t speak to somebody about it they might take it personally,” Smith came back.
“Yeah,” Irving agreed.
“Do you care about that at all?” Smith asked.
“No,” Irving said.
Irving went on to explain, “I don’t think that you owe anything to another person in terms of figuring out what you want to do with your life...There is no time to figure out how to save someone’s feelings when ultimately you have to be selfish in that in figuring out what you want to do...I want to be extremely extremely happy in perfecting my craft.”
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Later that day on Pardon the Interruption, Michael Wilbon astutely summarized the overall spirit of the interview, saying, “This is what happens when you have a bunch of people who are all self-absorbed, and they just say, “No! I don’t have to do this [for] you”...and I think that’s the culture that they live in and exist in from the time they are like 12-years old.”
Let’s get this out of the way immediately. Yes, every human being has the right to do what they want without getting other’s permission, especially in the world of professional sports. The longing to be “extremely extremely happy” is shared by humans in every walk of life. How could anyone hate on that innate desire?
What follows here has nothing more to do with the details of Kyrie Irving’s desire to be traded or the way he went about it with his teammates. Discussing the details and the relative rightness or wrongness of what he did can be left for others. He’s just representative of an attitude that’s become the norm rather than the exception in sports.
Instead, we should be concerned with the spirit represented in this interview, a sport-version of the soul that says, “My self-interest and advancement and happiness are all that matter. Everyone and everything else is second to me fully realizing me.”
That’s a problem.
We should be concerned that what we heard in the interview has become so sought after and normalized that we—especially younger people—might erroneously conclude that 1) this path is actually where life is found and 2) it’s really the only possible path to choose.
Selfishness doesn’t produce the life it promises
This is a perfect time to remind ourselves that unchecked self-absorption makes it impossible to find life in the most significant areas of life.
Impossible to stay healthily married.
Impossible to be a good parent.
Impossible to really be counted on as a friend in difficult times.
Impossible to be a fully vested, contributing member of a local community.
Impossible to be a good teammate.
Impossible simply because to do any of these well demands a re-occurring willingness to be more concerned with how someone else feels instead of just how I feel. It means putting others’ needs ahead of my own and to lay aside my own desires on behalf of another person—the exact opposite of self-absorption.
Wisdom literature across time and tradition affirms the idea that self-centered behavior ultimately makes a life shrivel and shrink, not bloom and flourish. Conversely, even evolutionary psychologists conclude that “We feel good when we are contributing to others...giving really is more pleasurable than receiving,” and that happiness is tied to sacrifice more than selfishness.
That means instead of celebrating acts of brazen, self-interested behavior, a more fitting response might be to grieve for the person who believes she will be happy now that she’s filled herself up with herself. Successful self-absorption never produces the sustaining happiness it promises.
Selfishness really isn’t the only option
To Wilbon’s point made earlier, self-interested, self-promoting behavior from athletes—or humans in general—isn’t exactly newsworthy. We’ve come to expect it.
But there really is another way, even within elite athlete culture. We don’t see it often, but we shouldn’t give up looking for it—even if we can’t expect it.
Pat Tillman comes to mind.
In 2002 Tillman—a successful linebacker for the Arizona Cardinals who at one time turned down a five-year, $9 million contract offer from the then St. Louis Rams out of loyalty to the Cardinals—walked away from a three-year, $3.6 million contract with Arizona to join the United States Army Rangers.
Disturbed to the point of action by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Tillman said, “Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful. However, these last few years, and especially after recent events, I’ve come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is...It’s no longer important.” (He had just set a Cardinals single-season record for tackles, BTW.)
Like Irving and most athletes holding the cards to their own future, Tillman didn’t let his teammates’ potential dissatisfaction sway his decision or influence how he thought best to leverage his life. In that sense, both decisions shared a level of self-interest.
But one trajectory represents leveraging self-interest to further one’s own happiness, while the other represents leveraging self-interest on behalf of others. One admits choosing the greener grass of perceived personal happiness in the pursuit of self, while the other chooses the hope of contentment provided in the dry pastures of others-centered sacrifice while literally dying to self.
The point of the contrast isn’t to pick a winner or loser regarding their opposite paths. It’s simply noting that other paths are available, since we’re so often encouraged to believe only one option for an elite athlete or successful business-person or powerful politician or any other person with agency exists. You really can choose to lay your brand aside for someone else, to sacrifice yourself instead of promoting yourself.
Jesus and the subversive nature of sacrifice
As a reminder for those who follow Jesus, He declares the better path in clearest of terms. He laid down his life not for his friends and teammates, but for his enemies.
He counters our natural impulse toward self-promotion by offering an alien way to live, one that doesn’t merely look out for one’s own interests, but also the interests of others. One that involves doing to others what you would want them to do for you—even and especially if they don’t deserve it. One that occasionally involves intentionally laying aside power and stepping off the path of advancement to allow others to shine instead of you. Self being sacrificed on the altar of others-centeredness, over and over again.
Dutch priest, theologian, and writer Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), who left his tenured position as a professor at Harvard Divinity School to care for folks with mental and physical disabilities at Daybreak L’Arche community, put it like this:
“The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross. This might sound morbid and masochistic but for those who have heard the voice of the first love and said ‘yes’ to it, the downward-moving way of Jesus is the way to the joy and peace of God, a joy and peace that is not of this world.”
Counter elite-sport culture. Indeed, counter any human culture.
The way of the cross turns the well-trodden path of self-interested advancement back on itself, leaving in its wake decisions that seem other worldly by contrast—because they are.
A word to the Christian athlete, parent of athlete, or coach: Self-interest is completely natural, but allowing God to do the supernatural in and through you instead of just looking out for yourself will produce a quality of life you can get in no other way. Team settings provide a great environment to die to self everyday if we seek them out.
In a world of constantly publicized self-interest, let’s not forget that self-sacrifice is still an option, one with a huge upside both for the giver and those being blessed by the gift.