Performance, Anxiety, and the Brocial Compact: David Roth's Weak in Review

It was pretty dumb of D'Angelo Russell to secretly record Nick Young's love-in-the-club confessions. Everything that's come after has somehow been even dumber.
April 1, 2016, 9:34pm
Illustration by J.O. Appelgate

Give or take some minor feats of avant-garde enunciation, there are no real pleasures to be found in watching ESPN's Stephen A. Smith express his opinion. And yet there is a certain low-intensity dramatic tension to watching him do it, if only because you get the sense that Smith himself is hearing about this opinion for the first time only as it comes out of his mouth. The result is a performance of freestyle bullshit in which Smith, who has transparently not studied for this test, buys himself time through sighs and scowls and, in a nicely Trumpian flourish, obfuscatory emphasis.

That last part is a dangerous game, because when you're on television saying something like, "Skip, and I absolutely and positively believe this statement to be the truth, incontrovertible truth, and I've been saying it for a long time, a very long time" and you don't yet know how the sentence is going to end, you run the risk of bricking yourself into some very bad opinions. This would be a bigger risk if Smith (or anyone on ESPN) ever suffered any consequences for the badness of his opinions, but it still takes some guts. It may be true that we don't want to see how the sausage is made when it comes to public policy or whatever, but there is something strikingly urgent about watching Smith blithely fill one natural casing after another with grade-F thoughtmeat, and then throw those rancid thought dogs right on the dang grill.

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I cannot watch Smith's show for more than a few minutes at a time; I am mostly reminded of Smith's existence when he's blustering and qualifying his way through some ESPN-mandated apology for comparing Kevin Love to Slobodan Milosevic or saying that women's sports are unconstitutional or whatever. But I know enough, from my studies, to know that it is bad news when Smith gets into an incantatory mode. It means not just that he remembers the sentence that just came out of his mouth—this itself is rare enough to remark upon it—but that he also already knows what the next sentence will be. It looks like this when it happens:

"This is one of those situations where the Lakers gotta contemplate trading him. This is one of those situations where his agent needs to contemplate dropping him so he doesn't lose other clients... He's 20 years old. You're 13 years old, you know better. You're 10 years old, you know better. I don't care how old you are."

This is what it looks like when Smith actually cares about what he's talking about. And Stephen A. Smith transparently really cared, a lot, about the fact that Lakers rookie D'Angelo Russell recorded his teammate and professional basketball meme Nick Young talking about hooking up with a 19-year-old girl in a club. Young is 30 and engaged to be married to Iggy Azalea; the video wound up online, which Russell says was never his intent, and he spent the week being shunned by his teammates and enduring Kobe Bryant's Yoda imitation. The reasoning behind all this is as opaque as anything else having to do with this Lakers season, and Russell's explanation that the whole thing is the result of a flubbed prank and a hacked Snapchat account is both very dumb and somehow totally convincing. But for Stephen A. this is an issue that allows for no ambiguity. Smith is famously eager to see the shades of gray in not-so-complicated issues like Floyd Mayweather's domestic violence habit, but he's fucking Churchillian when it comes to the Bro Code.

The Bro Code is a two-way street, but there's a sewage treatment plant at both ends of the it. Photo by Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Smith is not alone in this. ESPN brought in machismo consultant Stephen Jackson to say the words "snitches get stitches" on TV, and Matt Barnes used this incident to advance his noble agenda, a season-long hearts-and-minds campaign to convince the world that he was right to drive 95 miles to punch his ex-wife's current boyfriend in the face. All week long, voices from across the spectrum of performative masculinity—shitty comedians, random Twitter squeakers, mercurial wing players, sports media types with undiagnosed personality disorders, and unloved comment section regulars—united to say, as one, "Nah, dude." It was touching, but not in the way that anyone would ever ask to be touched.

Except for Russell, who seems truly contrite and truly immature, everyone else seems to be putting on a performance of some kind here. This is not to say that, say, Stephen A. Smith isn't authentically outraged at the idea of one man revealing another man's romantic scummeries, even by accident; he probably is, because this is precisely the sort of thing that cheesy dips like Smith care about. A great percentage of the Boring Dude community spends its days in talmudic parsing of the fine points of man law, debating and litigating the intent and spirit of a code whose central tenets do not quite rise to the intellectual grandeur of "whoever smelt it, dealt it."

In the same way that there is both tragedy and comedy in men who get extremely upset about, like, the new Ghostbusters movie with women in it—the dudes (and they are all dudes) thundering that there is a canonic version of Slimer who must be respected—there is tragedy and comedy in this dead-serious reverence for the bro code. In both cases, they are taking something that is transparently not serious and treating it with laughable respect. The whole of the bro code, or at least the tenets of it that pertain to the case of Russell v. Young, is a series of goofy macho bluffs; it was never meant to bear the weight of a million buttheads, saluting. There's a great deal of sexism in it, but it's of an offhand and unreasoned variety; that doesn't excuse it, but this is not a worldview so much as it's a bunch of dumb words. There is no need to underline the comedy of adult males revering a value system whose core beliefs are basically bumper stickers an asshole would have. The people that can't see it are not likely to, and everyone else is already laughing.

It is not totally fair to blame capitalism for Matt Barnes being the way he is, but it's not fully fair to Matt Barnes to leave it out. Market forces were not what compelled Barnes to drive 95 miles to punch Derek Fisher; that part was mostly just him being a hair-trigger sexist maniac with severe boundary issues. But the anxieties that generate this sort of furious macho semaphoring and overdetermined posturing are the anxieties that animate many of the worst and smallest stupidities in a national life that's warped by greed and guilt. The idea that everything is a competition, that to appear less than strong is the same as actually being weak and that weakness is a sin, that it is better to be certain about a lie than work to understand a more complicated truth—no one exactly likes living like this, but there is a pressure, among men if not uniquely upon them, to appear to have mastered it all the same. That pretense mostly looks pretty stupid to people watching, but looking smart isn't the point. Looking the same is the point.

Professional athletes are competitive, along a spectrum ranging from Benignly Pathological to Literally Kobe; this makes sense for them, because their working lives are a competition. There's no telling what Russell was thinking in recording his teammate, although it was probably pretty dumb. It is much easier to see the thought process in Stephen A.'s thundering, and in the long line of dudes behind him answering in unison. They are just hitting their marks and saying their lines, because they're so afraid of what would happen if they didn't.