On the Sunday in January that Kobe Bryant died, an ESPN announcer said we would someday remember where and when we heard the news in the way that people old enough recalled President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Really, the death of a basketball star being equated with the murder of the leader of the free world?
As a young boy, I recall the JFK assassination transforming the world and hearing something similar being said. That day in 1963, television anchorman Chet Huntley said “probably few living Americans” watching did not find themselves remembering how they felt when they heard that another president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had died suddenly 18 years earlier.
That, at least, felt like apples to apples.
But my intent is not to criticize the heartfelt social media remembrances and continuing ceremonies honoring Bryant, his daughter, and the others who died on that helicopter. Nor is it to downplay the exceptional journalism that has followed it, highlighted by a recent New York Times story describing Bryant’s final hours in granular detail.
Mine is more a commentary on how much the culture has changed.
Let me explain.
Compare the aftermath of Bryant’s death with that of Roberto Clemente, who died on New Year’s Eve in 1972. Clemente was a Puerto Rican baseball superstar who was killed in a plane crash while on a mercy mission.
After a severe earthquake had devastated Nicaragua, Clemente organized Puerto Rico’s response. He was angered that Nicaragua’s dictatorship was diverting aid shipments, so he chartered an airplane to bring badly needed supplies. Shortly after takeoff, it crashed into the sea. His body was never recovered.
Clemente was a Bryant-sized superstar of his day who played his entire career for the Pittsburgh Pirates. I saw him in person at Chicago’s Wrigley Field and once witnessed him throw out a runner at third base from deep right field. To my eyes, it appeared that his long-distance and laser-accurate throw was never more than 12 feet from the ground, a jaw-dropping display.
Clemente was an all-time great player — inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame less than a year after his death and arguably the first Latino so honored — but he had a much broader cultural significance. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest honor given to civilians.
Author (and part-time Madison resident) David Maraniss captured the essence of Clemente’s appeal in his deeply reported 2006 biography of him. While most baseball legends are rooted in nostalgia, Maraniss wrote, “Clemente’s myth arcs the other way, to the future, not the past, to what people hope they can become. His memory is kept alive as a symbol of action and passion, not of reflection and longing. He broke racial and language barriers and achieved greatness and died a hero.”
In the newspaper coverage of Clemente’s death, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was exhaustive. It filled six inside pages with tributes and pictures. Elsewhere, though, while it was treated as big news, mostly it was — as we say in the business — a one-day story.
Clemente’s name actually came up after Bryant’s death in a story by a New York Times sportswriter about how sports teammates coped with earlier losses. It was headlined: “ ‘There’s No Playbook’: Recalling the Pain of Lost Teammates.”
So what is my point in this Bryant-Clemente comparison?
Maybe it is that more communication does not necessarily mean better communication.
After Bryant’s death, a Washington Post reporter was put on administrative leave after she tweeted, without comment, a link to a story referencing 2003 rape allegations against Bryant hours after his death. She received death threats. Management reinstated her and said it had been wrong in publicly announcing disciplinary action against her.
But that supposed transgression pales next to that of a comic named Ari Shaffir, whose niche is apparently to be as cruel and offensive as possible.
Shaffir tweeted that Bryant died “too late,” adding, “He got away with rape because all the Hollywood liberals who attack comedy enjoy rooting for the Lakers,” referring to the Los Angeles Lakers, Bryant’s team. Shaffir concluded with, “What a great day.”
A talent agency and a comedy club reportedly dropped him, and he also received death threats. Still, his “joke” was featured in a New York Times story about the so-called “troll side” of comedy, and he will presumably continue to be a regular on Joe Rogan’s popular podcast, given the host’s forgiving criticism of Shaffir’s comments about Bryant. So, who knows, maybe such behavior is good for his brand.
The Times troll story said in summary: “The shocking death of Bryant hit a bigger cultural nerve, revealing how dark humor has expanded and evolved in the era of social media.” And later: “Its purpose is not to come up with a clever line that gets laughs, but to upset people, create discord and then laugh at that.”
You can probably tell my preference was for the culture of the Clemente era.
And no, I am not kidding myself into believing that before social media no one said awful things when famous people died. JFK’s murder was celebrated publicly in many parts of the South, a backlash against his focus on civil rights. But it went essentially unreported at the time.
Nor was comedy always sanitized. Comedian Lenny Bruce joked soon after Kennedy’s death that Vaughn Meader, who gained fame for impersonating the president’s voice, “was screwed,” although Bruce used a more graphic word.
Still, the popular culture of the past seemed to have a greater sense of proportion, civility and basic decency. Cruelty and coarseness were the exception, not an explicit goal.
And if that thinking makes me old-fashioned or politically correct, I’m all right with that.
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