Opinion: Do superstars in sports have too much influence?

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers in a game against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center on November 21, 2014 in Washington, DC. Photo by Keith Allison on Wikimedia Commons.

Sports have returned after a brief hiatus due to COVID-19, and the absence seemed to highlight their economic and social importance. In the face of crises, sports can be a uniting force, and in this current environment, that can be extremely powerful. However, the return of sports has also reignited past controversies and debates within them. 

During Game 6 of the NBA Western Conference first-round playoff series, Los Angeles Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. was ejected after committing a flagrant foul 2 against Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic. 

After the game, Morris defended himself, saying, “I think Tim Hardaway had an extremely hard foul with [Paul George] last game, and it wasn’t taken in [the same context].” Morris then said of Doncic, “He’s a young player. He’s going to be the face of the league. I’ve taken into account all of that. I have been around for a while. I know how this thing works.” 

Morris implying that Doncic was being protected by the referees started up a long-time debate about the influence and power of superstar players.

Before looking at specific examples of superstars in sports, the question must be asked: what exactly is a superstar? What separates superstars from other athletes in the same sport? There are a few factors. One is what is sometimes called flashiness, or big-play ability. For all the Chiefs fans out there, Patrick Mahomes is a very flashy player. That is part of what makes him a superstar. He makes plays that people have never seen before, such as this no-look pass against the Baltimore Ravens in 2019. These are the types of players that sell out stadiums. People pay money just to see what flashy players will do next. Then, those flashy plays are seen by millions of people around the world, and suddenly a certain player becomes a household name.

Another factor is a player’s ability to perform well in clutch moments. For example, a basketball player making a tough shot in the final minute to put his team ahead, or a baseball player hitting a walk-off home run. This factor is often what separates the superstars and the good players. You will often see a player like Steph Curry or Damian Lillard with the ball in the final minutes of the game because they have cemented themselves as superstars who can consistently make big plays in clutch situations.

The final factor, in my opinion, is legacy. Have these players done something that will impact the game long after they are retired? Have they set records, won championships, been dominant at their sport over the course of several years? These are the kind of players that people love to hate because of how dominant they are and how often they appear in championship games. 

The biggest superstar in the NBA right now, one who has been for over a decade, is LeBron James. He is a four-time league most valuable player, 16-time NBA All-Star, three-time NBA Champion, and a 15-time All-NBA selection – and the list goes on. His jersey has been among the top two highest-selling jerseys for years, and it’s hard to watch an episode of SportsCenter on any given day without hearing his name. 

James has done a lot for the game of basketball, but arguably his biggest contribution was when he decided to join Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh with the Miami Heat, forming what is called The Big Three. At the time, James’ decision to leave was criticized. Fans burned his jerseys. 

While all of these things still occur today, James’ decision paved the way for player empowerment in basketball and beyond, normalizing the idea that players should play with whom they want and where they want. Kevin Durant likely would not have signed with the Golden State Warriors in 2016 or Paul George and Kawhi Leonard teaming up in Los Angeles without LeBron James paving the way. The entire landscape of the NBA would be completely different without LeBron James. Considering how James normalized players taking care of themselves and doing what is best for them, I believe that change is for the better.  

Never one to shy away from speaking up on social issues, James has often been criticized for being vocal on issues of race and politics. Most notably, Fox News host Laura Ingraham told James to “Shut up and dribble” in response to some comments James made about President Donald Trump. Ingraham’s comments only seemed to strengthen James’ dedication to supporting social causes.

In 2012, James posted a picture with his Miami Heat teammates, all dressed in hoodies, with the hashtag #WeAreTrayvonMartin as a call to justice for the 17-year-old who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. This marked the beginning of a new era of social and political activism in the NBA, to the point where 300 of the 350 involved in the NBA restart have social justice messages on their jerseys. James has done a tremendous amount of good for the NBA and its players but the amount of awareness he has brought to social issues plaguing our country and the way he uses his platform to do so has arguably been more significant. 

Like James, Tom Brady is a man of many accolades. The long-time New England Patriots quarterback, who recently signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency, has racked up numerous MVP awards, Super Bowl rings, and NFL records in his 20-year career. Unlike LeBron James, however, Brady’s impact on football has been more erratic than James’. 

During the first game of the 2008 season, Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard lunged at Tom Brady, which took him out for the season with a knee injury. Despite the Patriots’ relatively successful 11-win season without Brady, the NFL had still lost its Golden Boy and decided that offseason that more needed to be done to protect quarterbacks. Thus, the Brady Rule was conceived, where defenders who are knocked to the ground can no longer lunge into quarterbacks if the play is still going on. 

The rule sounds pretty reasonable, until the next season when officials misinterpreted the rule on two key plays in a game between the Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens. One was when Defensive Tackle Haloti Ngata barely made contact with Brady’s helmet when trying to deflect a pass, and the other was when Linebacker Terrell Suggs pressured Brady. He went low, but Suggs clearly tried to avoid Brady’s knees. Yet the flag was still thrown despite Suggs not making contact with Brady’s knees. Both of these plays extended Patriots’ scoring drives, in a game they won 27-21. 

You could argue that these calls are not Brady’s fault, but you can clearly see on the second play that he is pleading with the official to call a flag while pointing at his knees, even though little contact was actually made. Brady took advantage of his status as a superstar to get a beneficial call on a play where no foul was committed. 

This instance was not a one-time occurrence either. Since then, more rules have been passed to protect quarterbacks that make defenders’ jobs significantly harder. And Brady, one of the best actors in the NFL, has continued the trend of exaggerating contact by defenders to get a beneficial call from the referees. This, in my opinion, is an example of a superstar using their status and their influence in a negative way.

Baseball is not considered a very flashy sport, especially when compared to basketball and football, but Fernando Tatis Jr. is changing that narrative. The 21-year-old shortstop for the San Diego Padres is turning heads this season and is currently tied for the league lead in home runs and second in runs batted in (RBIs). He was at the center of controversy when he cranked a 3-0 pitch to right-field for a grand slam against the Texas Rangers with the Padres already up 10-3 in the 8th inning. 

“I didn’t like it, personally,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said of Tatis’ 3-0 swing. “But, like I said, the norms are being challenged on a daily basis. So just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not right.”

Baseball is known for having a lot of unwritten rules, which are essentially just generally held beliefs as to how players, coaches and teams should act in certain situations. Young players like Tatis Jr., however, are challenging those rules, and people are loving it. They will not hesitate to do their job and play hard no matter what the score is, and they will have some fun along the way. He may anger some old-school fans of the game, but with baseball falling behind other sports in popularity, Tatis Jr. is leading the way for a revolution that, I believe, will save the game of baseball.

It is clear that superstar athletes have a lot of influence, both in their respective sports as well as society as a whole. People look up to them, and their words, actions and beliefs hold a lot of weight. These players have an incredibly large platform and audience – LeBron James has 71.8 million Instagram followers, for example – and with that audience comes a responsibility to use that platform, as well as their highly influential superstar status within their own sport, for the benefit of society and the sport as a whole. For the most part, I believe that superstars have done a good job of doing this. 

The problem arises when the leagues create overprotective rules on behalf of the superstars that prevent other players within that league from playing the game – like the Brady Rule. However, superstar players are crucial for evolving their individual sports as well as spreading important societal messages. Without them, sports would be a lot less exciting, and our society would lose some of its loudest and most influential voices.

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