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On Fred VanVleet: Is all publicity really good publicity?

VanVleet called out official Ben Taylor for what FVV thought was bias. Was it worth it?

Portland Trail Blazers v Toronto Raptors Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

Speaking out against a perceived injustice is an admirable trait and one that is often encouraged in many walks of life; see something, say something. Those who have influence and are brave enough to do so, garner immediate praise and admiration and whether intended or not, can be thrust into the media limelight. Fred VanVleet’s expletive-laden admonishment of NBA official Ben Tylor at a post-game press conference following the Toronto Raptors’ upsetting loss on March 9th to the Los Angeles Clippers shone a light on the perceived bias of a ref unfairly targeting one particular player.

One might wonder if the underlying issue of bias within officiating crews was overshadowed by VanVleet’s approach? Could the message have been delivered in a more palatable way that would appeal to a wider audience and get the attention he intended and that it deserves? Since the Raptors are indeed Canada’s team, ostensibly the eyes and ears of an entire nation are paying close attention.

VanVleet is undoubtedly a team leader for the Raptors and the basketball community as a whole. He also serves as a role model for aspiring athletes; a determined man with talent, starting off as an undrafted player and eventually realizing the enviable dream of NBA player, All-Star, and champion, a feat not obtainable without his determination, hard work and his on-court contribution. His value to the Raptors team and organization cannot be understated as at the conclusion of their title run, he was the only player that prevented Kawhi Leonard from walking away with a unanimous decision for Finals MVP, receiving a single vote. VanVleet, like most of society’s role models and modern-day heroes, is put up on a pedestal where expectations can be just as unfair as they are unrealistic. The greater the level of expectation the higher up upon the pedestal these individuals are precariously perched until the evitable fall from grace.

The nickname “Steady Freddy” was not chosen on a whim, but was earned through #23’s dependable play. Another fitting descriptor of VanVleet should be “Fearless Freddy,” as he is, in common basketball vernacular, “not afraid of the big shot, or the moment.” When the team needs him he steps up and rises to the occasion and delivers in that moment. As the ball leaves his hands the Raptors faithful are sure that it will be “money” and momentum will swing in our favour. It is this earned reputation that requires VanVleet’s comments to be examined in context. Shouldn’t a man who prides himself on being a team leader and cool under pressure not have perhaps weighed his chosen words more carefully as he prepares to speak to the media? Some might feel that this single occasion is, at the moment, his only transgression. Aren’t heroes permitted a misstep? Aren’t they allowed to vent as they are immersed in a highly competitive atmosphere where the possibility of missing a chance at a play-in game looms menacingly in the foreground? After all, if the Raptors perform poorly in the postseason (like, say, failing to advance out of the Play-In Tournament), who is likely to bear the brunt of the criticism? Inevitably it will be the team leaders, both in the eyes of the media and in the eyes of the fans who look up to players like Steady Freddy.

How we view our sports leaders and ultimately how we judge their actions depends greatly on the situation they find themselves in. Professional basketball, like all other sports, is an emotionally charged environment, in which being caught up in the moment is not that uncommon. Case in point, the architect of the Toronto Raptors Masai Ujiri poignantly dropped an F-bomb during the 2014 playoffs with the Brooklyn Nets. His remarks were seen as a rallying cry for the Raptor faithful, certainly he was saying what everybody else was very likely thinking. His remarks were given in the “heat of the moment” and therefore some allowances were made for his verbal indiscretion. Compare that image of Masai Ujiri to the one seen and heard speaking about the shameful way he was treated at the conclusion of the historic win at Golden State when he was aggressively shoved away from celebrating with the rest of the team. Even after he was hit with a lawsuit by Alan Strickland claiming Ujiri was the aggressor, he remained composed. Despite the complete injustice of that outrageous claim, Ujiri opted for a calm and measured response stating that he would be the voice for social action and change. Numerous appearances on major TV networks demonstrate that his voice was one people wished to broadcast. His delivery was in no sense less passionate and he vowed to continue his work to fight for and to turn the tide of injustice and inequality.

Refs are human too and just as fallible as everyone else. Look no further than a questionable call near the conclusion of this year’s Super Bowl which arguably had a significant impact on the outcome of that game. Blown calls are a mainstay in many sports. To VanVleet’s point, statistically speaking an inordinate number of techs were being handed out to him. If the number bears it out then his enormous frustration at unfair treatment seems to gain significant traction. Bearing in mind his enormous value to the organization as its leader and his popularity as a role model, perhaps his delivery of his raw feelings would have been better served by taking a page out of Ujiri’s playbook and measure his response.

Bias in sports is prevalent in headlines, as is seen in the ongoing dissatisfaction amongst the players on our women’s national soccer team. Christine Sinclair, a long-standing role model, also has a justifiable grievance about pay equity. Interestingly enough, it was not that long ago that Sinclair’s call for equal treatment was characterized by now disgraced soccer president Nick Bontis as “bitching.” The much-bemoaned sexist double standard again rears its ugly head. Yet, Sinclair remained throughout the process even tempered, despite the sexist name-calling, and those efforts have not been in vain – a dialogue regarding equity now seems to be taken seriously. She remains in the spotlight, whereas Bontis is looking for another job.

It appears that the significance of Fred’s feelings of unfair treatment in his mind may have necessitated the littering of a few expletives in order to drive home a point that he genuinely felt needed immediate attention and subsequent action. Understanding his vital importance as a role model to a country filled with young and impressionable fans one could wonder if he had to do it all over again, might “Steady Freddy,” the Raptors fan all-star leader have chosen his words a little more carefully? If anything, it certainly would have been cheaper.