The rules of repentance
Public atonement and the dangerous precedent in requiring proof of absolution, as with Ja Morant's ESPN interview.
It’s a 20 minute ride from the NBA offices in Midtown Manhattan to ESPN’s studios in Seaport. Ja Morant’s interview with Jalen Rose could’ve happened there. It could have also been in a cordoned off meeting room at the NBA offices or a hotel room around the corner from them. But it seems, wherever it was, that it happened immediately on the heels of Morant meeting with Adam Silver.
That urgency was not out of necessity for the interview or its questions, which are more like skimming repetitions of what Morant did than pressing or earnest inquiry into his takeaways since he stepped away from the Grizzlies. The urgency was also not for Morant, at least not personally, because whatever outcome will yield from his (hopefully) continued self-reflection can’t and shouldn’t come for some time. The urgency in the interview’s timing was solely for the NBA. To safeguard its own image now and to secure one of its most marketable future assets as he peaks on the axis of repentant and appears primed to boomerang back into competitive, like cryogenics for optics.
There was no other reason for the interview, for its spare 19 minutes of soft chronology. Any thoughtful excerpts — Morant admitting to how difficult it can feel to express himself, any worries and anxieties, as the de facto head of his family — overshadowed by Rose and Morant arms-lengthing it. For Rose, who rounded the edges from any question that might have come across not judgemental, but blunt, ad libbing “incident” anywhere he could’ve just describe what literally happened. For Morant, referring to himself again and again in the third person. But again, none of this was for Morant, and that’s the part that at first made me roll my eyes but in conversations about it or reflecting on it since, has turned an exercise in soft-focused image rehabilitation into a morally bad and mentally dangerous precedent.
First, there’s the obvious, physical reality of Morant’s whereabouts. We’d been told since the night of his Instagram Live in Denver when Morant flashed a gun that he’s been away. Initially, a two game departure from the team that extended to Morant entering a counselling program in Florida and later, an eight game suspension from the NBA. In the middle of this is the ESPN interview, where Rose asks Morant what he’s learned from being away. By then it had been 10 days but the corporeal reality was that Morant wasn’t away, he was right there, very proximal to the NBA, being made to talk about being away from the NBA potentially by the NBA, as if “being away” was a Do Not Disturb option he could toggle on his phone.
Beyond the access journalism I assume was at work in the NBA asking ESPN to do the interview and granting a sit down with Morant for it, the other model in play is a slippery and dark one. To demand proof of action when the action is supposed to be, or has been declared to be, absence. Time taken away to reflect or begin to scratch the surface on the depth of reflection that’s going to be required. In Morant’s case, based on what he’s said, it seems like that could be his professional career’s worth up to now and more. Reflection, self-observation, is boring. It’s supposed to be. It’s also ongoing. Putting parameters around Morant’s brief absence, asking him, like Rose does, what “he’s done” (if your heart broke a little hearing Morant say reiki and anxiety breathing — mine did too) is attempting to quantify or tabulate that reflection as something that requires proof. To associate something inherently dissociative with the reductive and still baseline language of sports: grind, reps, return.
There is certainly an issue of tethering mental health, or really diagnosing what Morant is going through to begin with, but realistically we shouldn’t even be there yet. It’s been just, only, two weeks since Morant stepped away. He can’t yet scratch the surface he needs to — and certainly can’t when he’s being yanked back and asked to talk about it — how can we?
What the league was in such a hurry to do was have Morant atone. Even if the NBA didn’t present ESPN the opportunity, ESPN still recognized it for what it was. We — a collective “we” of the Western world, maybe the whole world, certainly an American audience — love a public display of repentance. There’s no need to explicitly name the things done, an acknowledgement of wrongdoing even in the vaguest of ways will do.
Atonement, one of the only theological words of English origin (from the verb atone, literally “at one”, to reconcile), finds a place in most major religions if not linguistically, then in practice. In Islam, tawba (“to return”), repentance is individual, between the observer and god. Buddhism, with its lifelong karma in hopes of being reincarnated into something better, higher. In Judaism, Yom Kippur (Yom meaning “day”, Kippur from Kaporet, the Hebrew name for the seat placed on the Ark of the Covenant, so, “covering” — a day to cover sins — and Kippurim, cleansing), a holiday of confessing sins, fasting and prayer centred in the community. Christianity has had its many iterations of atonement, from Ransom (Christ’s death in exchange for humanity’s sins) to Substitutionary (Christ’s death as willing, “for us”) theory, to the act of confession (Catholicism), all which have trickled into most societal (jail) and personal (steps eight through nine in 12-step programs) concepts of redemption.
To put Morant through the motions, whether in front of a featureless high-rise window with a nondescript view of Manhattan beside him or in an ornate confessional, air clotted with incense, is symbolically the same. We can’t take him at his word that he’s trying, or will continue to try to alter and ultimately better his behaviour, because all our models up to now require — on a spectrum of severity — handwringing to bodily sacrifice.
The other layer of reality is that as a Black man, Morant’s contrition needs to be loaded. He won’t be given the same grace (e.g. trust) to be left alone to reflect as a white athlete would in his place. His sincerity has to be put on display, otherwise how will a white audience (and certainly majority white stakeholders) know it’s sincere enough?
And what’s the trade off? Freedom (though it’s cyclical, dependent on atoning and absolution, again and again). One of the interview’s most earnest moments comes in Morant’s answer to Rose asking whether he knew he was on Instagram Live, and what it was he was trying to do.
“Pretty much just trying to be free,” Morant says, “to use that as an escape.”
It was stupid to swing a gun around in a strip club at 3am. It’s stupid to do it anywhere. But we have all of us felt that kernel of escape in our gut, whether at opportune times or not, and wondered at its tremulous edges. What would open them further? What might spread them too far? What turns abandon into a chasm to fall into, versus a seed to nurture and yank the yields off for bites of provisional joy? Where Morant sought escape — and just in this instance, the others seem to me like juvenile mistakes he’s lucky have thus far not harmed the people involved or himself too badly — was outside our established societal rhythms of guilt and repentance, and he, as exportable figurehead for the NBA’s ongoing and future success, was sat down and asked to atone for it.
All gods love the repentant, multibillion-dollar corporations are no different.
In this situation, I don’t want to see Morant. I don’t want to see him chastened and moments later asked whether he thinks the Grizzlies can take the the West, like we’ve already forgotten the reason behind this grand production. I don’t want to see Morant at all. None of us should need to — that’s the whole entire point.
I don’t want to see athletes like Morant, who’ve behaved poorly but in ways that don’t instantly fracture them from us, trotted out to make amends for the league like a well-lit and pre-recorded sign of the cross. To repair whatever snags in the fabric of public image the NBA thinks are there, waiting to rend future revenue to ribbons. The more this happens, the more it becomes mandatory. The more it becomes mandatory, the more it becomes meaningless.
What I did think, the first time I watched the interview, was what if they did this when it mattered? What if instead of turning the cameras on someone who has nothing to answer for in public, they turned them on someone to try and further the discussions and instances we still have no answers for when it comes to public rehabilitation? The league is rife enough with violent assault allegations and domestic abuse cases from its athletes and front offices that it is happy to put on ice forever, or to let its teams host polite press conferences about knowing full well the line of questioning will be cut when it gets too close, when it begins to actually press.
For real reform and rehabilitation that doesn’t rely on archaic models of atonement in perpetuity, for reform and rehabilitation that has a hope of ending cyclical violence and harm, we have to haul these things out in the open. Not knowing how to talk about assault and abuse, in the context of pro sports, is the byproduct of choosing not to talk about it. The legalities — closed cases, hearing dates — make logistics more difficult, but where there’s already proof of harm or admissions of guilt (“Do you have an understanding as to the word consent?” “No. But can you tell me?”) how hard would it be to walk between the lines and say just as much or a little more than Morant did, when asked about exact instances? To have meaningful conversation and tenable models of disclosure that push us, uncomfortably, somewhere better, instead of hollow motions of cinematic remorse where the recourse is already underway, if only we were able to leave it alone? Not very. But to invert atonement — make the small things big, make the big things invisible — so that it becomes endless, empty and symbolic, will always be easier.
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"what if they did this when it mattered?" Will repeat in my head every time I see Ja until the end of the postseason.
A sublime unpacking of the problems with this whole situation. Well said.