From purely a basketball standpoint, the Charlotte Hornets signing Lance Stephenson looks like a good decision. He's a young player, an improvement at the shooting guard position, is on a favorable contract and it looks like he can improve even more and possibly become an All-Star.
Signing Stephenson doesn't bother most fans from a basketball standpoint. It bothers them on a personal level. It forces people to explore the moral and ethical values they probably turned a basketball game on to avoid.
As rumors popped up of the Hornets' interest in Stephenson, there was an outcry from some fans to not sign Stephenson. Though some may have concerns with his talents and how much he can improve, much of the outcry was not so much for his ability as a basketball player, but for his possible impact on team chemistry and a reluctance to support a team that had a guy with his history of off-court actions as controversial as Stephenson's.
It's very difficult to argue against this viewpoint. I can't fault those who keep morals away from sports, as difficult and willingly blind as that might be. It must be very difficult to support a team employing someone that's not only been involved in a sexual assault case, but then got involved in a horrible domestic abuse case just a year later, which was eventually dismissed. Domestic abuse is a gravely serious problem, with one-third of female homicide victims in America coming at the hands of an intimate partner and this should not be overlooked. The case was dismissed, however, so we cannot and will not assume him guilty, though to even be involved in such a case is a harrowing concern.
On the other hand, there haven't been any criminal issues since that case four years ago. He, too, is a real person and for all we know he's trying become a better person. What we're trying to assess is the process of a young man growing, which is difficult for outsiders to evaluate -- though sports media often tries to do it this way. For as public as professional athletes' lives are, we still know little about who they are or what they're like. Making the assumption that he hasn't changed could be an unfair one. More than rooting for him as a player, we can root for him to continue to grow as a person.
Reconciling the ethical problems in supporting a team welcoming that is difficult in any sport if you consider that your money is spent supporting people with troubling histories. That might make you stop and think about whether you can support them.
These incidents happened a long time ago, though. He has matured enough that criminal problems appear to be a thing of the past. But is his maturation really so complete? His on-court antics certainly haven't instilled people with the oh-so-beloved narrative of The Reformed Malcontent or The Matured Man Turning His Life Around.
The first time most NBA fans heard Stephenson's name, it wasn't for his play on the court, but for a choke gesture he made towards LeBron James in a second round playoff series against the Miami Heat in 2012. He played a total of seven minutes in the series. His actions led to a verbal incident with Juwan Howard before Game 4.
Stephenson followed the playoff incident with a quiet year and improved his game. He went from an end-of-the-bench sideshow to an on-the-court sideshow, except now he had the game to back it up. He used his defense to stay on the court, and continued to improve his offense. By 2014, he was an All-Star candidate considered by many to be the x-factor for the Indiana Pacers.
Then, the Pacers imploded. They went from the NBA's top team to what looked like an easy first round upset. You cannot place all the blame on Stephenson for their comprehensive struggles and locker room problems, but he probably got under some of his teammates' skin by becoming a bigger part of their offense. He's such a polarizing guy that he may have just been the easy target, but he didn't do himself any favors in the playoffs.
Everybody remembers Stephenson from this year's Eastern Conference Finals. Stephenson, desperate to get the best player in the world off his game, tried to get into LeBron James' head. His antics on the court peaked when he actually blew into LeBron's ear. Stunning, hilarious, or confusing -- there's no one word that can describe the reaction to the ear blowing incident. A lot of memes came out of it, though.
The Pacers were eventually eliminated, and we've now come full circle. With his free agency looming, there were questions of whether his behavior lost him money. Was his maturity a concern for anybody that was willing to sign him? It definitely seemed that way with him receiving considerably less interest than Chandler Parsons or Gordon Hayward, both young and offensively versatile wings like Stephenson.
I have no right, nor will I try, to psychoanalyze Stephenson. I'm not a psychologist and it isn't my place to say how mature I think he is. Further, drawing a connection between his on-court antics and perhaps falling back into problems like he had in the years prior to his NBA career's start is a false connection. It's like saying marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to heroin. Blowing in LeBron James' ear is not a gateway shenanigan to domestic violence or other violent crimes. I understand that decision making is a shared issue for both problems, but connecting them is drawing incorrect parallels.
What I can address is how fans feel about the sexual assault and domestic violence cases. There is nothing wrong with cheering for the Hornets while Stephenson is on the team. It doesn't make you a bad person. Can you completely ignore what goes on at the micro level to root for a team at the macro level? (I cannot.) At what point does enough time pass that a person be accepted despite their past? Not absolved, but just accepted? (This will be subjective, of course.) Whitewashing history is not an option, but is there a time when his past is not considered as a major part of his current maturity level?
The Hornets and Stephenson certainly have a lot riding on his maturity. Charlotte hopes he can grow on the court and off it to become the newest part of their young foundation. They've invested a lot in Stephenson by giving him this contract, and they've invested a lot over the past few years to change the culture in their locker room, which last year resulted in very positive team chemistry. They've already taken on a challenge in P.J. Hairston, and they've doubled down by bringing in Stephenson. Off-court problems at this stage could do damage to what they've been trying to build, and the Hornets undoubtedly understand that. They don't have a whole lot of veteran leadership. Their average age is 24 years old, and their oldest players are Al Jefferson (29), Gary Neal (29), Marvin Williams (28), Brian Roberts (28), and then Gerald Henderson (26). Charlotte's betting pretty hard that current Stephenson and past Stephenson are two completely different people.
Stephenson gave up $30 million in guaranteed money (because of the team option) by opting for Charlotte's three-year, $27 million deal over Indiana's five-year, $44 million offer. The clear difference here is that Stephenson wanted a shorter contract. In per-year numbers, the contracts are almost identical. But Stephenson lost out on financial security and limited his opportunities because of his past, and most likely wanted a shorter contract so that he could continue to stay out of trouble and improve his image before hitting the market again before to draw even bigger offers. It's a smart play and indicates that he's devoted to staying out of real trouble. If he doesn't, who knows what could happen.
The stakes are high on all sides. As for us, we will cover the Hornets as we have in the past, for better or worse. Sports are part of our culture, and they help shape who we are and how we interpret the world around us. Basketball is our focus, but it's less important than the real issues that surround us, so we understand if cheering for Stephenson is not something some people can abide by.Understanding how more serious problems affect how we view our love for sports and teams needs our own introspection on an individual level. Time is perhaps the best answer, but never the most patient one. Until then, we'll just have to hedge our bets and hope for the best.