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In Defense of Al Horford, Common Sense and Respect

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Al Horford and his wife welcomed their second child into the world Sunday. But when the Boston media hot-take machine and the public that eats up its garbage complained about him missing the game the following day, it became apparent that common sense and decency need to pop in to say hi every once in awhile.

Al Horford with wife Amelia Vega after the birth of their first child in February 2015
AmeliaVega.Net

EMPATHY, USA — Al Horford had a baby Sunday.

It was a pleasant bit of news for a wonderfully pleasant guy, who is married to former Miss Universe Amelia Vega, who had the couple’s first child Ean in February 2015. When Horford missed the game in Miami this Monday, it came as no surprise...since he was a little busy holding his newborn daughter Alia and celebrating one of the few truly perfect moments of one’s life.

But it was foolish for him to think he could take an incredibly brief paternity leave without having to answer to the wrath of our nation’s capital of hot takes. When CSNNE’s Michael Felger took to TV to explain how much he knows about aviation scheduling and paternity leave philosophy, it planted an idea in his massive audience’s head that Horford was being lazy and weak for not hopping down to Miami.

Felger’s comments, as transcribed by MassLive’s Jay King, laid out the flight plan for Horford to leave the Atlanta hospital where his family was located to get to Miami in time for tip off.

"He had the birth of his kid in Atlanta. The game was in Miami. I know when you make $30 million a year it ain't much to get a private jet. (Celtics co-owner) Wyc (Grousbeck) would probably pick it up to fly down at 3 o'clock in Atlanta. It's about a 90-minute flight to Atlanta. Play the game and come right back."

“If there were complications then OK, take that all off the table. If the mother or the child or something happened where there were complications, then I totally understand. But if this is a generic child birth? Play the game."

"I would have gone to the game, I would have played in the game. I like my guys to sort of forsake everything for the team."

It prompted plenty of backlash, most notably from Al’s sister Anna.

When I first saw this soliloquy of logorrhea, I laughed it off, much like how I chuckled at Donald Trump’s incoherent ramblings months ago. But when the topic came up today both online and just talking to people in Boston, it was apparent that some people I respect thought Felger was on to something. These are the millions of people who get their news and analysis through the filter of Boston sports talk media.

Much like how ESPN is fragmented into different departments—with a varying quality of journalistic integrity that runs from live footage of a shouting dumpster fire on First Take to the gold standard of analysis from Boston sports scene natives Zach Lowe and Bill Barnwell—the Boston media landscape suffers from the same dichotomy. It is reminiscent of a collateralized debt obligation (CDO), stacked high with tranches of inflammatory BS, with a copy of the Globe on top to make it look legit. As a reminder, those reckless CDOs helped collapse our economy a decade ago.

There is a reason why this great website exists, but also why Gerry Callahan’s responses in this Richard Dietsch SI panel stuck out like a sore, manipulative, and cynically prejudiced thumb. While there are many reporters and outlets providing good and fair coverage, there is a cesspool of shock jocks that cloud up the punch bowl. It’s abundantly clear that talk show hosts like Callahan and Felger left their integrity and responsibility back in the locker rooms when they hopped off the beat and stepped into the studio. While the likes of Michael Holley make me tune in every once in a while, there is usually a drummed-up scandal from someone else waiting around the corner.

The idea that “guys forsake everything for the team” is still prevalent in both sports and society, although it is losing prominence in the progressive areas of the country. Regardless of Felger’s theory, it is an ideal that Brad Stevens is against. He has frequently preached valuing players as well-rounded people, yet another grape from the Popovich Vineyard of Wisdom, Red Wine and Basketball Wizardry. Stevens motivates his players with the carrot rather than the stick.

“I think our greatest responsibilities are as sons, husbands and fathers,” Stevens said Tuesday. “I think that’s your number-one job. We’re thrilled for the Horfords and we’re thrilled to have Al back at practice and be ready to go tomorrow. But obviously, family is really, really important.”

What better way to command respect and devotion than by showing respect and devotion? Stevens won over his players early by showing them that he cared about them as individuals, prioritizing their personal and professional development as their primary value. He earned the admiration of seemingly every player in the league by establishing a reputation for being fair, just, prudent and wise. It’s the reason why Al Horford signed to play for him.

“I’m very happy that the Celtics take the time and consider us, not only as players, but as people, and people that have families,” Horford said at practice Tuesday.

So it is unsurprising when people who give these things little thought present their obtuse viewpoints. But it is rooted in a thorny entanglement of societal values that is currently engulfed in flames.

This controversy brief detour through doucheville illuminates a duality our society is still grappling over: the work-life-responsibility balance. The United States lags well behind other developed liberal democracies in protections for family leave, especially in contrast to the EU. Rhode Island took the first step toward enhancing worker protections for maternity and paternity leave in 2014, while Washington DC is voting on the most generous leave program in the nation.

Massachusetts law guarantees unpaid paternity leave, but the prospect for a paid family leave bill was cryogenically frozen when Steve Grossman lost the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary to Martha Coakley.

Financial protections are not a concern for Horford in this scenario, but that doesn’t negate the issue at hand. The birth of a child is of unparalleled importance for many reasons, whether it be support for the mother or just being there to enjoy such a vital moment. But the highest priority is to establish that familial bond.

“I’m in a unique situation because this is our first year here and my wife (was) going through all the moving in the middle of the pregnancy, so (it was) just a lot going on,” Horford said. “I just felt like it was important for me to be there for her, supporting her.

“And we have a son (one-year-old Ean) as well, so it’s been a lot thrown at her these last few months and I know that it meant a lot to her for me to be there with her.”

There are multiple studies examining how significant being a part of the preparation and birthing process is for preparing for fatherhood, which of course is just common sense. Saying anything to strip away the raw humanity of that postnatal moment is as calloused as it is insane.

In an era where the fight to end this archaic devaluing of being present for your child’s birth is moving forward, saying that you or your parents took just a day off from work is a whimper of defeat in progressive thought. Falling back on a detrimental precedent functions as a hindrance to societal growth. Complaining about a protected human right because of that person’s wealth unnecessarily dis-incentivizes individual success and hampers the capitalist ideals that drive our nation. Our athletes and celebrities sacrifice a significant degree of privacy for their achievements and compensation, but they should not be pressured to sacrifice normalcy.

Horford has earned his right to have a job where he has the flexibility to miss work. Players are routinely held out of games for minor injuries and rest, so staying with your newborn for a full day certainly seems a bit more significant. Horford’s child is in Atlanta and may be there awhile, so this was his chance to spend time with his family before he begins a marathon schedule of seven games in two weeks. Newborn babies typically don’t fly for weeks or months, so Horford’s time with his child may be difficult to come by. We don’t know what their plan or situation is, and we should respect that by avoiding undue speculation.

To go on TV to draw an arbitrary line in the sand regarding when it is appropriate for Horford to walk away from the room where he is holding his newborn baby is something that an outsider who routinely demonstrates a vast void of empathy should leave on the cutting-room floor. And that ignores the fact that the date and time are most likely lost on someone who just had a child. Some sort of incredibly-hard-to-pull-off supersonic sprint to Miami creates a logistical nightmare that is comical, considering it is a middle of the season game.

Maybe Felger thinks the runway is located on top of American Airlines Arena? Or that Horford could borrow the hospital’s medical chopper while a deadly wildfire is raging nearby in Tennessee?

The irony is that in 2005, Felger said it was fair when Brett Favre took coach Mike Sherman’s offer to skip camp to be at home while grieving from the loss of his father and brother-in-law in addition to his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis.

Favre shockingly played the day after his father died, putting in a historic performance that many of us who witnessed it remember clearly to this day. I watched that game with tears in my eyes, remembering how it took me three weeks to leave my house after my brother suddenly died earlier that year when I was 12 years old. Favre’s decision to play was understandable, and we have generally learned as a society to respect individuals’ methods to grieve.

There are multiple NBA players currently on leave from their teams as they grieve deaths in their families. Jrue Holiday took an extended leave of absence to support his wife as she survived a brain tumor. These absences have been rightfully accepted as a matter of fact, but for some reason the opposite end of the journey of life is not given the same respect. We are a society that still identifies more closely with pain and controversy than with joy and compassion.

Perhaps these reactions come from a shielding of the humanity of a pro athlete. With all the talk of players being assets and filling roles, the fact that they are people with complex lives who experience the obstacles and emotions we all do gets lost in the shuffle. The more players are reduced to highlights and fantasy stat lines, the less their fans remember that they came from somewhere and fought for what they have earned.

It’s something we in the media are guilty of all the time. I try to prioritize respecting all players and coaches, refraining from saying someone sucks and always trying to present an alternative viewpoint or silver lining when criticizing someone. Everyone has merit and contributes something positive, regardless of how significant their shortcomings may be.

But Boston sports media is a mirror reflection of the political climate and the news media cycle that has fueled it. Habitual line-steppers are rewarded by their core base and are enabled by those who tune in just to get a good view as the world burns. The more we watch, the more surreal it becomes.

It’s easy to follow the NBA, see a perfect-looking man with a perfect-looking spouse and think of them as statues, as fictional TV characters. But they are as real as you and me. They give birth in the same hospital and make the same adorable Instagram videos when they get there.

Things may be easier for them with their money and fame, but they are still the same. Best of luck trying to not take a day off from work after seeing your wife do this.

!!!!! #BabyTime

A video posted by Amelia Vega Horford (@ameliavega) on