Religion & Liberty Online

What’s behind the unhappiness epidemic in the NBA?

Recently Adam Silver, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, spoke about unhappiness among many NBA players,

When I meet with them, what surprises me is that they’re truly unhappy. A lot of these men are generally unhappy.

With a salary minimum of $838,464 (about 26 times the $31,561.49 medium net compensation of all American workers) it is safe to say the unhappiness is not rooted in material frustrations but spiritual. Silver attributes this unhappiness to social media fueled anxiety,

We are living in a time of anxiety, I think it is a direct result of social media. A lot of players are unhappy. I’m an anxious person myself. That’s why players like talking to me.

Perhaps the poster-child for this year’s unhappy NBA players is Anthony Davis, the New Orleans Pelican’s all-star talent, who was fined $50,000 by the league earlier this season for the very public trade request made on his behalf by his agent Rich Paul. The public trade request not only alienated Davis from the Pelicans but the ensuing trade rumors compromised the Lakers’ team chemistry proving to be the final nail in the coffin of a disappointing Lakers season.

Back in New Orleans,

No one would blame you if you haven’t checked in on the New Orleans Pelicans as they conclude their sixth losing season in eight years, but, yes, Anthony Davis is still playing … most of the time. The Pariah-can is being held to a minutes limit and out of fourth quarters, one leg of back-to-backs, and sometimes whole games just because.

Davis gave some insight into his thinking on LeBron James’ talk show The Shop,

“All the media coverage [is] around me, and now I’m getting a chance to take over my career and say what I want to say and do what I want to do,” Davis said. “So now you see everybody [saying], ‘All right, I see AD changing.’ Everybody’s telling me, ‘You’re growing up. It’s about time to take care of your business, take care of your career.’ So now, as a player, as the CEO of my own business, I’ve got the power. I’m doing what I want to do and not what somebody tells me to do.”

This seems to validate Silver’s analysis that players are suffering under the weight of anxiety. Anthony Davis: NCAA Champion, first overall NBA draft pick, six time all-star, and gold medal winning Olympian has felt powerless. That he hasn’t been in control. And out of that frustration and anxiety he has alienated fans, teammates, and even contributed to the dysfunction of another NBA franchise. This is about more than social media, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Multi-million dollar contracts, fame, adulation, and even excellence in the game of basketball itself cannot give you control, absolute power over your own destiny. Nothing can. Epictetus famously made the distinction of what is and what is not in our power:

Of existing things some are in our power,
others not in our power.
In our power are conception, effort, desire, aversion
and in a word whatever are our actions;
but not in our power are the body, property, reputation,
rulers and in a word whatever are not our actions.

The Bhagavad Gita likewise admonishes us that,

Work alone is your privilege, never the fruits thereof. Never let the fruits of action be your motive; never cease to work. Work in the name of the Lord, abandoning selfish desires. Be not affected by success or failure.

What was common wisdom to the ancients has become strange to us. Without acknowledging the truth of our ultimate powerlessness we cannot but be deeply unhappy. Let us pray as the Proverbs of Solomon, “Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me.”  (Proverbs 30:8)

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.