Last night, Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Derrick Rose managed to put together likely the flukiest game of his career, scoring 50 points en route to a win over the Utah Jazz, after which he was immediately and widely praised for never giving up after all he’s been through. So what’s he been through?
Rose has had a bad five years, bouncing from team to team while dealing with injuries related to his joints, which are made of peanut brittle. He also spent much of 2015 and 2016 dealing with a credible accusation of gang rape by a woman who said in an April 2015 lawsuit that Rose and two friends drugged and raped her. The ramifications included a prolonged legal battle in which his lawyers shamed the accuser’s sexual history in court and Rose admitted he didn’t know what consent meant, while later claiming a text message had given him consent to have sex with the accuser, who said she was incapacitated. Rose was found not liable in a civil trial, after which jury members who decided the case gleefully posed with him for photos and the presiding judge wished him well “except when the Knicks play the Lakers.” The case is under appeal, which will be heard on November 16.
But last night, after Rose scored a bunch of points, much of sports media was overwhelmed by the opportunity to hump 2012-era Derrick Rose nostalgia. That’s fair enough; sports and morality have nothing to do with one another, and if you accept that success doesn’t make someone a paragon—something an entire industry of sports mythologizing has argued against forever—you accept the corollary that you can appreciate or even celebrate a shitty person’s achievements without ignoring their shittiness. (In fact, if you can’t do that, sports might not be for you.)
What was gross about the reaction to Rose’s game wasn’t so much people being excited about getting a glimpse of what might have been had injuries not ruined an all-time career; it was this shit from the sports mythologizers, so eager to conflate a good game and personal virtue that they immediately started pushing a narrative about how Rose had come back and triumphed over adversity without bothering to note what it was he was coming back from, or had triumphed over:
While Sports Illustrated and The Ringer grappled with how to situate the ongoing sexual assault case against Rose in the context of his comeback, other reporters and outlets, including the Washington Post, Yahoo Sports, USA Today, the New York Times—which only had a treacly Associated Press story on its website as of this morning—and ESPN simply didn’t mention it at all, lest they complicate the feel-good story about hard work with some unsavory details about gang rape and the burden of proof in civil trials. Ignoring the rape allegation doesn’t work, but neither did Timberwolves broadcaster Jim Petersen’s attempt to shoehorn it into his summation of Rose’s emotional and triumphant comeback, as ESPN’s Mina Kimes pointed out on Twitter in an act of mild ESPN-on-ESPN violence. Petersen said:
He’s got a lot of stuff going on off the court and I’m not a judge and I’m not a jury and to my estimation he’s not been convicted of anything but what he is—is he plays hard, he is a gutty basketball player.
This friendly profile of Rose published yesterday by The Athletic’s Shams Charania, which can’t be excused as a half-formed thought hastily offered on live TV in the wake of Rose’s big triumph, also failed spectacularly. Given that it was written by a pure access merchant, the story was never going to ask the hard questions, but while ostensibly offering a look at how Rose “revived his career,” it completely failed to mention the rape allegation and civil case that dragged on for more than a year of Rose’s life.
Then this morning, in the light of day, New York Times NBA reporter Marc Stein publicly scolded himself for getting “swept up” in the Rose comeback mania. That he did so while qualming about the very thing he’s seemingly apologizing for—“I don’t know where or if this belonged in last night’s conversation”—is very much the problem.
This isn’t that hard: If any praise of or story about Derrick Rose includes mention of his comeback, his past, “what he went through,” his former glory, or includes basically any attempt to take stock of his career, addressing his rape allegation—the one that tarnished his glory and shaped the arc of his career and his life—is not optional. It’s not an asterisk; it’s not an obstacle he surmounted; it’s not a hardship the ultimate purpose of which was to allow him to achieve great things. It’s a part of his human history. It can’t be excised.