Tony Wroten and the Psychology of Fanaticism

I read an article on Tony Wroten’s less-than-clutch performance down the stretch in Thursday’s loss to Oregon State and felt compelled to respond. As this feeling of compulsion rarely overwhelms me, I decided to follow through on my emotion with an actual response. I can tell you’re as impressed as I am by this turn of events.

All jokes aside, there’s something very real and intriguing about the player that Wroten has become over the course of this past season. So before we address the specific moment in recent history that has inspired such debate, let’s go back in time to last fall, when the Husky faithful was first formally introduced to No. 14…

From the moment he arrived on the campus of the University of Washington, fans seemed to take Tony Wroten with a grain of salt. The six-foot-five-inch point guard was a supremely talented prep superstar with a history of interesting, albeit relatively harmless, decisions away from the court. Skipping a high school Spanish class, then unwittingly revealing an academic scandal through Twitter as a result of a braggadocious post about said truancy might be the first interesting decision that comes to mind with Wroten. The teenager’s perceived legacy, however, was seemingly defined before such a violation ever occurred.

He is a Seattle native with a big personality. And in a world where social media fuels big personalities, Wroten became a victim of his own online persona while growing up. It didn’t help matters that many of the fans exposed to his burgeoning persona are the same individuals who loyally support the purple and gold of Washington. To pretend that first impressions don’t impact a relationship, however distant that relationship may be, is certainly naive. When Wroten committed to the University of Washington, he engaged in a relationship with a fan base that was essentially committed to supporting him. Unlike many recruits, though, Wroten’s accessibility (through the internet, as well as his geographic proximity) allowed a significant portion of that fan base to form predispositions about the enigmatic freshman before he ever put on his college uniform. And in many cases, those predisposed opinions were of the negative variety.

There is a certain bias that can occur with people who have left a negative impression on you. You’ll be more cognizant of their flaws, you’ll look for the things you don’t like about them, and you’ll often fail to recognize their positive traits. Throughout the course of this season, a large contingent of fans have had this attitude towards Wroten. It’s not up for debate. This is obvious following every game. One need not search any farther than Facebook, Twitter, or the message board community for evidence. Fair or unfair, Tony Wroten, as a player and a person, has had to endure more scrutiny than perhaps any other player in University of Washington basketball history. And much of that comes as a direct result of the impressions he left on people while maturing as a Seattle-area high school student.

The bigger societal issue is whether or not kids should even be allowed to make fools of themselves in the public spectrum when they’re young, dumb, and apt to say and do things they’ll later regret. If there was some online forum that chronicled everything we had said or done as teenagers, half of us probably wouldn’t have jobs, let alone the ability to succeed in front of others. The meshing of Wroten and Twitter was as caustic and ill-advised as Bobby and Whitney and clearly has had a lasting impact on the local perception of who the 18-year-old (yes, he’s still only 18) truly is.

But I digress. We don’t need to consume ourselves with society’s problems in an article about a basketball player. What we have before us today are simply the outcomes of one individual’s actions and one group of people’s reactions to those actions over an extended period of time. Most of us were first introduced to Wroten when he was a freshman at Garfield High School. We’ve had four years to formulate our ideas about this phenom. Whether or not our ideas are just is irrelevant by now. Ideas can change, and as Wroten continues to grow and develop as a person, those ideas will likely morph into something different. But for now, this is what we have at our fingertips.

He is frustrating because we make him frustrating. First and foremost, that needs to be stated. If we knew nothing about Wroten’s past, if we had no idea that he was a highly-touted recruit, if we were unaware that he even existed in the Twittersphere, we’d likely be more willing to accept Tony Wroten as the remarkable talent he is. So to that end, we’re guilty of being tormented by our own preconceived notions. That’s where we find ourselves with regards to Wroten’s stat line from Thursday’s game: 29 points, seven rebounds, three assists, four turnovers, one steal, two blocks. By all accounts, that is an incredible game. But I’m no hypocrite. I’ll own up to my own immediate assessment of Wroten after the contest. As I told my brother on Thursday night, those were the ugliest 29 points I’d ever paid witness to. And I’ll stand by that today.

Why do we do this to him? A dude puts up 29 freakin’ points and we want more? How can we be so greedy? These are questions I, myself, struggle to find the answers to. It doesn’t seem right to demand so much of somebody. But then I start thinking about not just how talented he is — because Wroten really is that talented — but also how great he and others have made Tony Wroten out to be. Our expectations of greatness are shifted when greatness is often achieved. The bar is continually set higher, and thus we demand our overachievers to keep on overachieving. The odd thing with Wroten, though, is that many see him as a perennial underachiever. Why? Well, quite simply, the Tony Wroten Hype Machine has spiraled out of control.

Tony Wroten wants you to know he’s great. That’s all well and good, young man, but when you fail to live up to your own billing, people are disappointed. Likewise, the sports media also wants you to know that Tony Wroten is great. There are so many people telling us Wroten is great, including the man himself, that we reasonably start to expect greater. Which leads us to the closing minutes of Thursday’s defeat.

Wroten missed four straight free throws in the waning minutes of Washington’s loss. In less than 24 hours, those four absent baskets have radiated brighter and brighter in fans’ understanding of this particular ballgame. Refer back to Kevin Pelton’s article that I linked at the top of this piece. That article alone served to address such an isolated incident — those four free throws and the essence of “choking” — that lost in the shuffle was the remaining majority of Wroten’s performance. To counter the failure of that isolation, Pelton has reminded readers to consider the success of the preceding 38 or so minutes of Wroten’s basketball life.

But what about the ugliness of those 29 points I mentioned? Sure, we can turn a blind eye to four missed free throws. We’ve been instructed to do that, so we’ll obey. But what about the turnovers? All four of those came in the first half, when the Huskies dug themselves a hole that ultimately proved to be insurmountable. And they were egregious. A lazy pass that was picked off by the opponent, a bullet into the first few rows of seats that appeared destined for no recipient dressed in Washington’s home whites. What about the decisions with the ball that came at the expense of the other four teammates on the court at any given time? Too many times, it seemed, there were possessions in which no other Washington player touched the ball besides Wroten. Is that good team basketball? Not by any stretch of the imagination.

Don’t get me wrong. The line Wroten put up is impressive. But in looking at that impressive line, we tend to focus on the points, all 29 of them. I liken this to a pitcher’s wins in baseball. Sure, it’s a number we can use to gauge a surface idea of a player, but does it really tell the whole story? Not at all. Wroten’s impact on this particular game was measured two-fold: either a) you thought he choked because he missed four late-game free throws, or b) you thought he was great because he tallied a hefty number of points. I’m challenging you to think outside the box. If you witnessed his performance first-hand, would you really, honestly believe Wroten played as well as he could have? Consider the gray area between the black and white.

The game, those 29 points, those four missed free throws, they are a microcosm of the Tony Wroten conundrum. We love him, we hate him, we acknowledge his past, we forget his past, we are completely torn apart by who this guy is. I’m telling you that aside from those two examples — the points and the charity shots — and with no regard for our preformed ideas about the freshman point guard, Wroten could have played better on Thursday and is deserving of some criticism.

On a greater level, however, we need to get better about how we condemn and condone an individual like Wroten. We can’t critique his play, it seems, because that makes us “haters” (as the players, themselves, would say). On the flip side, we can’t love the guy if we hate him, so that makes us hypocrites when we try to throw any accolades his way. Is it really that cut and dry?

I like Tony Wroten. I do. I don’t like everything about his past, but I realize he’s still developing as an adult. We were all 18 once. We should be able to relate to that. At the same time, it’s my right as a fan and as someone who understands basketball to opine about any player’s play. It just is. It’s part of what makes fandom great.

If nothing else, Tony Wroten is teaching us about the psychology of fanaticism. He may stick around for his sophomore year or he may leave school when this season is finished. Regardless, one thing is certain: what he does or does not do will definitely, without a doubt, inspire a reaction.

6 responses

  1. Wow, this article was kind of about nothing.
    Wroten can be a ball hog but he’s also talented. People criticize him but are also astounded by his talent. Ok. Thanks.

  2. I’d be pissed if I read all that and took away nothing, too. So my apologies. I owe you a better article next time.

  3. Wroten choked at the end of the game, I’m sure he’s very aware of that, but it’s ridiculous to pretend that this is all Wroten’s fault. Without Wroten we are not even in this game in the 2nd half. I love Wroten but frankly I hope he leaves for the NBA so he doesn’t have to deal with the bulls*** that Husky fans have been throwing at him since day 1.

  4. A long, thought out article was necessary to discuss Tony Wroten. In my 4ish years of fandom, he is the most complicated sports player I’ve ever seen. Do I love him, or do I hate him?

    Truth is I don’t know. I’m in the middle. What it all eventually comes down to is this: When he plays good, we like him. When he struggles, we criticize him. As shallow as that statement is, it’s the truth for me at least.

  5. I went to elementary school with Kevin Pelton. That is all.

  6. [...] But are my issues with Wroten’s game fair? Alex Akita, editor and creator of Seattle Sportsnet, (rated the top Seattle sports blog in Western Washington) had this to say recently: There is a certain bias that can occur with people who have left a negative impression on you. You’ll be more cognizant of their flaws, you’ll look for the things you don’t like about them, and you’ll often fail to recognize their positive traits. Throughout the course of this season, a large contingent of fans have had this attitude towards Wroten. It’s not up for debate. This is obvious following every game. One need not search any farther than Facebook, Twitter, or the message board community for evidence. Fair or unfair, Tony Wroten, as a player and a person, has had to endure more scrutiny than perhaps any other player in University of Washington basketball history. (http://seattlesportsnet.com/2012/03/09/tony-wroten-and-the-psychology-of-fanaticism/) [...]

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