Research in psychology confirms that we humans imitate individuals we hold in esteem and who are successful on tasks we consider important. Behaviors that stand out and noticed are most likely to be imitated.
For many boys, and girls as well, NBA players meet these conditions. Whether they want to or not, these gifted athletes are social models influencing the development of their young admirers.
Generally, these celebrities enhance development of youth by modeling important elements of sportsmanship. These include working as a team, putting group success ahead of personal success, goal setting and achievement, control of emotions, rule-following behavior, sustained focus on a difficult task and coping with adversity and loss. Accolades to NBA athletes who model these important behaviors to youth.
However, a host of unsportsmanlike behaviors are also demonstrated by NBA athletes on the court. The primary recipients of these negative acts are the referees. For lack of a better term, I will call this collection of negative social behaviors “whining.”
Whining almost always involves communication through facial expression. This involves rolling eyes, grimacing and facial contortions that communicate disbelief and shock. Shrugging of the shoulders is often paired with a look of incredulity. Arguing the call of the ref is done in animated fashion with strong body movements communicating exasperation. The specific language remains unheard by the distant fan, but the words obviously are emotional and challenging to the authority of the offending referee.
A player at times makes the call as if helping the incompetent referee, and drops his jaw when the call goes in favor of the opposing team. A player might refuse to hand the ball to the ref when the whistle blows, putting it on the floor for the referee to retrieve. These acts of disrespect occur more than a few times. It is a litany sung intermittently across 48 minutes.
Whining threatens the integrity of NBA basketball but, more importantly, serves as a dysfunctional model for youth. Specifically, whining by anointed athletes legitimizes poor sportsmanship, draws attention away from play on the court, focuses attention on the individual rather than the team and moves professional basketball closer to the drama that is professional wrestling. But of greatest concern for society is the lack of respect demonstrated for authority. These athletes unwittingly encourage disrespect for authority by those young people who hold them in great esteem.
The solution seems obvious — enforce the rules that are already in place regarding abusive language and mocking referees. Perhaps clarifying these rules at the outset of each game would be helpful. Players, referees and coaches are allowed to freely communicate among each other. However, verbal and nonverbal instances of what has been defined as whining would be immediately penalized with a technical foul. As is now the case, two technicals would eliminate the player from the court.
Let’s encourage civility on the basketball court by more actively enforcing the rules that presently exist.
John Seaman is a retired school psychologist and retired adjunct professor of psychology at Salt Lake Community College.