I have a few questions about the Instagram Live video that just got former NBA player Paul Pierce fired from his analyst gig at ESPN.
Why are they doing boys night in what appears to be an undecorated banquet hall? Don’t these people have basements? Why is the guy in the back filming? And instead of throwing poker chips at the woman twerking on the floor, wouldn’t it be more polite to hand them to her?
What I do not wonder about is how Pierce got himself into this mess. That part is easy to figure out.
Pierce was a successful professional athlete. In between visits to the local pediatric hospital and shoe commercials, this is how a lot of successful professional athletes live.
For those of us who do not move in that milieu, it might seem odd to invite a bunch of women in thongs over to your house so that they can writhe about on the furniture while you play cards. You’re a regular person with all the regular problems regular people have. You aren’t itching to add acrimonious divorce to the list.
But in Pierce’s world, it makes total sense. Why? Because it’s Tuesday. Wednesday is Take the Jet to Vegas Night. That’s a four-hour flight both ways, so you want to go easy on a Tuesday.
Pierce’s mistake wasn’t any particular thing he did. Everyone’s gotta make a living. In the interests of social utility, I’d rather Pierce redistribute the US$200-million he earned over his career this way than stick it all in an off-shore tax shelter.
No, Pierce’s mistake was confusing who he is with who he used to be.
Pierce used to be a guy who would put on tights every second night and chuck a ball around. Back then, only a few people in the world could do what he did as well as he could. His professional value far exceeded any drawback his lifestyle presented to the NBA brand. The person he used to be could broadcast his extracurriculars seven nights a week and twice on Sundays and get away with it.
The person he is now is a guy in a suit with an opinion. Pierce’s opinions do not light up the internet’s rage cycle. He is the sort of analyst who caters his comments to cause minimum offence. That’s nice and all, but it doesn’t win any ratings wars.
There are a million former pros who can do what he does. His professional value has been reduced to showing up on time, being nice to the crew and never doing anything too ridiculous in public. He broke one of those rules.
ESPN didn’t fire him for what appears to be playing host to strippers at his house, or what could be smoking a blunt on a livestream.
It fired him because this is the most entertaining Pierce has ever been while talking on camera. My personal highlight is Pierce cutting over a woman who’s trying to get a word in edgewise. “She’s from Istanbuls,” Pierce says. “From Turkeys. We been to Turkeys before.”
Additionally, ESPN fired him because he’s the kind of guy who thinks doing live geography from the Velvet Room is okay, and that sort of person can’t be trusted. It’s not what he did this time. It’s what he might do next time.
After he’d been clipped, Pierce sent out another video. He looks a lot less tired and emotional in this one. It shows Pierce laughing on a loop. I think he’s going to be fine.
This incident falls under the “no harm, no foul” section of celebrity meltdown, but it’s also a reminder and a warning.
It reminds us that athletes have the same adjustment problems we all have. They just have them later in life.
I’m going to guess you made a few mistakes in your teens and early 20s. Who among us has not spent at least one night in the tombs?
Mid-20s is still okay, as long as you’re in engineering school. Late 20s is pushing it, hard. Early 30s is too far. Early 30s means you have probably tipped over into a lifetime’s worth of waking up fully clothed on the living room floor.
Successful pro athletes don’t hit the real world until their late 30s. They arrive spectacularly unequipped to deal with regular-people problems, because that stuff used to be taken care of for them. Why do you think every pro team has a full-time security guy on staff? It isn’t to provide security.
All of a sudden, they’re regular people. Rich and famous regular people, which does tend to smooth off the edges. But if they would like to be out in the world consorting with normals for business purposes, they must redefine the limits of their behaviour.
In my limited experience dealing with former pros who have joined the media, most are delightful. They seem tickled to be on the other side of the fence. This makes sense since great athletes are, by definition, autodidacts. Talking for a living is just another skill to learn.
The warning is for those pros who don’t have Pierce’s money, his savvy, his reputation and the options in life all those things give him.
We love rubbernecking at the excess of the athletic life. Ever since pop stars went vegan and started lecturing us about climate change, pros are the closest thing we have to the Rolling Stones back in the day. Most of us wouldn’t live this way regardless, but it’s fun to imagine.
For every Paul Pierce who can dabble in it after retirement without serious consequence, there are a dozen guys who can’t. These are the pros who didn’t play long enough or make enough money to keep the party rolling forever.
These sorts of pros – the vast majority – made a Faustian bargain. They get a few incredible years early on in life, including an all-you-can-eat buffet of forbidden fruit.
But if they aren’t careful, if they don’t sock away some money, if they aren’t discerning with the company they keep, re-entry into regular society can be turbulent. A few won’t make it back to Earth with the rest of us. Getting their key pass cancelled by the Worldwide Leader in Sports is the least of their problems.