Everyone has their line. One can only withstand so much anger, so much vitriol towards another human being before it becomes too much. Even if that venom is not directed towards you, even if it’s directed elsewhere, just witnessing the hate-fest from the sidelines can be taxing; it’s emotionally draining, to say the least. And while a part of every one of us may agree that harsh criticism can certainly be warranted, there is similarly a more humane part of each of us that aches when the subject of such criticism is repeatedly torn to shreds.
Thus we have Exhibit 1A in the form of Abdul Gaddy, Washington’s senior point guard who has come to personify the failures of a Husky Basketball season slowly spiraling down the drain.
Gaddy is a mercurial subject in that his personality would seemingly prevent him from becoming the target of pure loathing. He appears to be an intelligent, reserved, humble young man who utters nary a word of angst about his struggles. That alone makes him worthy of respect, no matter how much we may not like the guy. Anyone who can face adversity and bite their lip — especially with all the access to social media outlets that we enjoy today — is stronger than most of us will ever be.
But while there are certain traits about the young man that are distinctly not negative, there are few characteristics about Gaddy that beam with positivity. Abdul Gaddy, for all his reserved humility, is bland. And there’s no getting around that. If he possesses charisma, we don’t see it. If he exudes warmth, affability, and a sense of humor, we’re not exposed to that. His play on the court doesn’t show it, while his actions off the court aren’t well-known to fans. Part of that is his own doing (it is his personality, after all), and part of that is the university’s fault. Of late, the Washington Athletic Department has done a remarkable job at limiting media access to players, shielding them from the public eye (or, perhaps, ear) without much reason. Fans haven’t really been given the chance to get to know Gaddy the way they got to know guys like Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Will Conroy, Isaiah Thomas, and other stars of Husky Basketball past. The result is a disconnect between fans and student-athletes. That disconnect is a contributing factor in the, shall we say, misunderstanding of Abdul Gaddy. But at whose feet we lay blame for this misunderstanding — the player, the school, the fans, some or all of the above — is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that we don’t know Abdul Gaddy as well as those players we’ve liked. And that’s a problem.
Much like the players we accept or reject, Seattle sports fans are a curious bunch. For inexplicable reasons, this city gravitates towards athletes that possess a certain, indescribable je ne sais quoi. We frequently turn average backups (Willie Bloomquist, Doug Strange, John Jaso, Steve Scheffler, to name four) into cult heroes. On the flip side, we sharply critique even our most noted superstars (Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Shaun Alexander, to name three). We hate and we love all at the same time. We’re no different than most fan bases in that regard. But our ability to look past stats and demand something more from our athletes cannot be refuted. You can be a great player or a bad one; if you don’t establish some kind of footprint in the community outside the locker room, however, we won’t embrace you. And that’s really what it amounts to. We want our athletes to be human. We want to relate to them. Think about the uber-relatable success stories like Felix Hernandez, Matt Hasselbeck, or the aforementioned Robinson, guys who played at a superhuman level, yet were just like us in so many other ways. In contrast, consider Alexander, a man who set records running the football, yet was more or less run out of town when his play declined, in part because he never could completely warm up to the public. This is how we segregate our athletes in this city. Love it or hate it, it’s reality.
This leads us back to Gaddy, who once again finds himself as a unique lightning rod for our understanding of athletes. Aside from actual performance, he has distinctively emerged as a Shaun Alexander-type, an individual who hasn’t fully been embraced by fans for reasons that can’t necessarily be codified by numbers or big-picture analysis. But to better understand why this happens to be the case, we need to first understand the trajectory of Abdul Gaddy’s ascent to status, an arc that began to take shape four years ago.
Prior to the 2012-2013 Husky Basketball season, Gaddy was neither loved nor hated by Seattle sports fans. A talented prodigy coming out of high school, the Tacoma native was heralded as one of the most notable University of Washington basketball commits ever, which in and of itself places a heavy burden upon the subject of such accolades. Upon donning the purple and gold for the first time as a freshman in 2009, Gaddy was viewed as a cornerstone of Lorenzo Romar’s program. It was universally understood that Gaddy would be an NBA player someday. It was expected that he would not only succeed at the college level, but flourish. He’d become an All-American, he’d lead the team to the NCAA Tournament every year, the sky was the limit.
Gaddy’s freshman campaign was underwhelming — he averaged just 3.9 points and 2.3 assists per game — but not entirely unexpected for a first-year player fresh out of high school (one who, at 17, was younger than most of his peers, as well). His sophomore year got off to a more tantalizing start before he suffered a severe knee injury, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament and ending his season after just 13 games.
As a junior, Gaddy returned from the ACL tear and its subsequent surgery and played okay. He tallied 8.1 points and a career-best 5.2 assists per game in what was basically written off as a comeback year, a mulligan if you will. Not only that, but with high-profile freshman Tony Wroten Jr. on the squad, Gaddy was a mere afterthought at his own position, let alone on the roster. And as teammate Terrence Ross evolved into an NBA lottery pick, Gaddy was all but forgotten about.
When Ross and Wroten elected to go pro after the 2011-2012 season, the focus quickly shifted back to the few remaining impact players that were left behind, Gaddy among them. Entering his fourth and final year on Montlake, and with a knee now fully healthy, anticipation began to ramp up once again for the Bellarmine Prep alum. It was as if the last two Husky squads hadn’t even included Abdul Gaddy — fans had forgotten the man existed until others began departing. Seemingly content to always take a back seat to more commanding players, Gaddy was now exposed to the masses as a leader prepared to make a name for himself. Whether he would be willing to take on the challenge was irrelevant. Expectations, though somewhat neglected in the two preceding seasons, had been in place for three full years; now was the time to fulfill them. At least that’s how so many people saw it.
The season began with a whimper. A loss to little-known Albany in just the second game quickly had fans second-guessing the makeup of a team without two of its best players from a year prior. Two out of the next three contests after the Albany disaster also yielded defeats for Washington, and thus full-on panic set in for fans.
It was around this time that people began noticing that not only was Abdul Gaddy on the team, but he wasn’t playing all that great, either. His reserved style was now being labeled “soft.” His even-keel temperament on the court was now a sign of dispassion and laziness. Did Gaddy even care? Had he ever cared? What the hell was he even doing out there? Where was the highly-touted recruit we had inked back in 2009? And who was this imposter we were staring at now, this staid mannequin of a point guard who had failed to live up to the hopes laid out for him at the beginning of his college career?
This is of course where we start to question what this criticism of an Abdul Gaddy tells us about ourselves. It’s an interesting discussion that divides sports fans on a daily basis, separating each of us into one of a few different factions, unique in their own composition.
For instance, there are some who think it’s fair to rip some athletes, but not others. This is best exemplified by the “college-versus-pro” debate, which essentially reasons that it’s unfair to ever critique a college athlete because college athletes, as we know, are amateurs. They are not paid professionals like their counterparts in the NBA, the NFL, Major League Baseball, or the like. They are student-athletes and that’s it. As a rule, we do not take shots at them. Why is that rule in place? Why do some live by that rule? Who knows. You could argue that in some ways student-athletes are getting paid — they do earn a free college education, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars in most instances — but that rule won’t fly for the fans in this camp. Likewise, you could point out that Gaddy is a 21-year-old man (he’s a man by definition, not an adolescent in any form or fashion) who, despite his amateur status, is still much older than some of the paid professionals that a fan living by these morals would criticize. There are 16-year-old baseball players earning less in the way of financial value than college athletes, but because college athletes are “amateurs” and teenaged baseball players “professionals,” we can only reasonably pick on the teen pros, despite any age gap. This is one faction of fans in this discussion.
Then there are those who feel that it’s okay to criticize players of any ilk — amateur or professional, paid or unpaid, blue or green — so long as those criticisms aren’t aired publicly. Oh sure, behind closed doors we may call athletes every four-letter word in the book. We may say horrible, horrible things about these public figures with our friends, at a bar, in our own living rooms, but so long as we don’t record our thoughts or our words, so long as there’s no paper trail of our feelings, we’re okay. In essence, we can express whatever we want privately. But when we read it online, when we hear it on the radio or see it on television, only then are we moved to disgust. It’s a borderline hypocritical stance that blows the “think before you speak” mindset out of proportion. See no evil, hear no evil…but think evil all you want.
There are others whose criticisms know no bounds. Everyone’s a target, without limitation, without special “rules,” and without regard for much of anything at all. Much like the comedian who insists he’s not racist because he hates on every race equally, the fan who takes shots at every athlete can’t be viewed as a hypocrite for picking and choosing the times he delivers acrimony because he’s spread his malevolence around with particular aplomb. These individuals vary in their levels of sanity. At one end of the spectrum you have the enraged cynic, a fan who has been absolutely ravaged by failure throughout the course of his life and hates everything as a result, athletes included. At the other end, you’ll find a jokey jokemaker, someone who uses the convenient misfortunes of public figures as part of a niche role he serves to others, either as comedian, public voice, or something else. Regardless of where fans in this faction end up on the range of intellect, they are the ones who typically fuel this “ripping athletes” discussion more than everyone else. They are the leaders of the ensuing social movements that arise as a result of any team or athlete struggles, and because many of these critics are seen as respected voices (due to jobs in media or otherwise), they tend to spawn similar behavior from their respective followings.
The majority of sports fans can be thrown into one of these three groups. The Abdul Gaddy conundrum centers around the divide between each of these factions. There are those who won’t criticize Gaddy because he’s a college amateur; those who are okay with deriding Gaddy in their own homes, but not publicly; and those (like me, for example) who give zero f**ks about anything and would put Mother Teresa on blast if she committed more turnovers than assists.
About the only thing that unites all sides of the debate around Gaddy are the facts about his performance. Not only has his play remained relatively stagnant since his college career began, but it’s been particularly ugly at the most inopportune times. Late in close games and at critical junctions in contests, Gaddy has crumbled. The word “clutch” is ambiguously used to describe players who excel in pressure situations; Abdul Gaddy may very well be the opposite of clutch.
Fair or unfair, this assessment of Gaddy is accepted (begrudgingly, by some) by most fans. The argument then shifts to how we convey the agreed-upon assessment in reasonable fashion. The harsher the conveyance of our understanding of Gaddy (or any other athlete), the more likely it is that people will react angrily. You can call it “bashing,” you can call it “ripping,” but what everyone’s saying in one way or another boils down to this: Abdul Gaddy isn’t playing very well. After that, it’s all about interpretation.
Above all else, it’s the interpretation that gets to people. Assessing Gaddy in a 140-character diatribe laden with expletives will assuredly be seen as “bashing.” On the contrary, painting a picture of an unfortunate anti-hero burdened by unfair expectations and the potential after-effects of injury will be accepted as just. It comes back to that line of tolerance we all set for ourselves as individuals. There’s only so much each of us can take. And as the mercury rises in our barometers of permissiveness, we inch closer to that point where we can’t stand it any longer.
About the only thing all this “ripping” of Abdul Gaddy has told us about ourselves is that the outer-most reaches of our tolerance boundaries have been stretched. Gaddy has been so polarizing this season (on such a frequent basis, no less) that he’s caused us to react to our own reactions. His divisive play — call it poor if you wish, I know I do — has driven us to analyze our own behavior as fans. That’s damn near insane. But because it’s sparked such a debate of morality and righteousness, we have to talk about it.
Are you a better person because you don’t “rip” Abdul Gaddy? Maybe. But you might also be hypocritical or lacking in the courage it takes to share your opinions.
Are you a jackass for “bashing” Abdul Gaddy? Possibly. But you might also be revered for having the balls to speak your mind, openly and honestly, without fear of repercussion.
And are you even really “ripping” or “bashing” Abdul Gaddy when you convey your opinions on his performance? Or are you just stating the obvious, then leaving it up to the power of interpretation?
Our general understanding of Gaddy has led us to believe that he’s a bad basketball player. That’s based on expectation, hype, and ultimately, results. Were he a walk-on with no pedigree, we would have surely extended him a longer leash before criticizing. But certain elements of his performance — repeated critical late-game flubs, for example — would have caused us to react negatively as fans no matter the background of our subject.
We hear it all the time. We’re individuals, we’re unique, we all see the world differently, blah, blah, blah. There may not be a better vehicle for displaying our individuality than Abdul Gaddy. So we can get mad. Mad about him, mad about how he’s understood or misunderstood, mad about other fans for their interpretations of him. Or we can just live with the fact that this dude, this individual, has tested us, has stretched us, and has temporarily divided us.
But know this: at the end of the day, when everything is said and done, we’ll always find our way back to a shared fanaticism of our team, be it the Huskies or otherwise. Because two months from now, Abdul Gaddy will be a former University of Washington student-athlete. And no matter how you view his legacy, no matter how you choose to remember him as a Washington basketball player, you — like me, like all of us — will reemerge as just another fan come April.
Until then, we’ll deal with one another and we’ll deal with Abdul Gaddy. And here’s hoping this situation doesn’t repeat itself next year.