Shirley You Jest

Paul Shirley is a former NBA player who sat on the farthest reaches of the bench his entire career. While bouncing from team to team, Shirley blogged (and continues to) about his experiences in basketball. Now and then, he would chime in about matters of greater importance. Most recently, he touched on the Haitian relief efforts following the earthquake two weeks ago. Here’s an excerpt from Shirley’s piece:

“I haven’t donated to the Haitian relief effort for the same reason that I don’t give money to homeless men on the street. Based on past experiences, I don’t think the guy with the sign that reads “Need You’re Help” is going to do anything constructive with the dollar I might give him. If I use history as my guide, I don’t think the people of Haiti will do much with my money either.”

Later on in his piece, he addressed the people of Haiti directly:

“As we prepare to assist you in this difficult time, a polite request: If it’s possible, could you not re-build your island home in the image of its predecessor? Could you not resort to the creation of flimsy shanty- and shack-towns? And could some of you maybe use a condom once in a while?


The Rest of the World”

Your initial reaction is probably not unlike mine: What an idiot. Maybe so. I had to wonder why I felt that way, because parts of his opinion hold merit. Surely, we all want to see Haiti rebuilt, but not in the mold of its former self. It’s an island nation prone to hurricanes and now earthquakes. At the very least, it will be rebuilt in the middle of harm’s way. We should hope that’s taken into consideration as soon as the infrastructure is resurrected. Better buildings. Safer facilities. This will take time and money.

That’s as much common ground as I was willing to concede.

Shirley's memoir, "Can I Keep My Jersey?: 11 Teams, 5 Countries, and 4 Years in My Life as a Basketball Vagabond," was published in May 2007.

I’ve emotionally detached myself now when I read Shirley’s aimless rant. Consider Shirley’s career as a measure of his sanity. Can you imagine going to your job, enduring all of the company training, attending all of the meetings, partaking in professional development opportunities, and still, when the time comes to do your job, your left to watch others work? That’s not one day — that’s every day. That’s the large part of Shirley’s basketball career. So what does he do? Improve as a player, earn playing time?

Nope. He writes about it. Not without self-degradation. In fact, that’s what makes his writing great. He becomes that plucky guy you played high school basketball with who somehow made it to the NBA. His writing catches the attention of NBA fans, and then, where he becomes a regular contributor. (Not anymore, though.) Pretty soon, Paul Shirley isn’t the NBA reserve who just so happens to write — he’s the writer who just so happens to be an NBA reserve.

Now, he’s this. This blunder. He’s Don Imus. He’s Carrie Prejean. He’s Pat Robertson. He’s someone who kept it too real, too honest, and now he’s going to the slaughter.

He’s a bastion of the First Amendment.

Wait, what?

A great Media Law professor once told me the First Amendment isn’t in place to protect the words and ideas we agree with. Still, Shirley’s reputation — whatever it was — is on trial. For those of us with an ounce of compassion, its easy to look at Shirley’s opinion and think, What an idiot. But whether we’re aware of it or not, we’ve all made distasteful comments of equal offensiveness sometime in our past.

Last week, prior to the NFC Championship game, I posted a Facebook status update similar to this:

“Note to Minnesota Vikings fans: As you prepare yourself for the NFC Championship Game, know that not all traditional pump-up songs are appropriate for this occasion:

I felt overwhelming guilt not 10 minutes later and promptly removed the status. Later in the week, however, several Vikings fans on my Facebook posted status updates with the similar idea: Yo Saints! Get ready for Hurricane Brett! It’s something that’s distasteful now, years later. Imagine having posted such a thing just two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit. We’re all guilty of saying (or at least) thinking seriously regrettable things. It’s tact that keeps us from exposing them to the world and/or the Internet.

Shirley’s at a serious loss for his opinion, and that’s sad. What he wrote was something most of us will disagree with, but since when have we, as sensible people, completely shunned others on the grounds of dissenting opinions? In reality, Shirley better articulated his reasons for not donating money to Haiti better than most who did donate ever could. Many would simply say, “It seemed like the right thing to do” or “I wanted to help.” Shirley approached the matter from a different angle, and now he’s suffering the consequences.

But don’t feel bad for him. He must’ve been aware the public backlash his opinion would receive. If anything comes of this, maybe it should be a paradigm shift in we more sensible folk. Let’s look at this situation pragmatically. Instead of He’s an idiot, maybe Well, he’s entitled to his opinion.

Ironically, now Shirley’s the one who will have to rebuild.