Commissioner Silver was Right: Social Media’s Impact on NBA Success

At the most recent MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that many NBA players are experiencing increased anxiety which is “a direct result of social media… they’re truly unhappy.”

Charles Barkley, during an interview on the ESPN show, Get Up, scoffed at the idea. He suggested that Silver’s comment was “the stupidest thing I’ve heard any Commissioner say.” Barkley went on to cite the fact that these young stars are millionaires, staying in the best hotels in the country and “they ain’t got no problems, that’s total bogus [sic].”

Barkley is not alone in his sentiment. These young men have the adoration of millions to accompany their many millions of dollars. They have shoe deals. They have private chefs. In many ways, they are living the modern American dream.

But whose dream is it? Charles, who deserves respect as an intuitive commentator, has failed to consider the obvious idea that there is no singular standard of success. Mental health is even trickier, as happiness is even more difficult to define.

“happiness… is a subjective and constantly evolving heuristic”

Success is not Universal

Success is not a switch in a brain, or in the environment, which can be flipped. Success is subjective, and entirely relative. To some, success is directly tied into social status, or measured in wealth; many find happiness in connections to peers, or a higher purpose.

Achieving success is inextricable from one’s definition of success, which is always subjective. We chase what we believe will make us happy. Sometimes that works. Other times our aim is off and we have to head back to the drawing board.

There are plenty of happy millionaires staying in fancy hotels. And there are just as many miserable millionaires in fancy hotels. There are plenty of happy wanderers, living in small cabins in forests, detached from much of the modern world.

And happiness is relative. If billionaire Warren Buffet were dying of thirst, then happiness would be found in a glass of water.

This does not mean that wealth, wandering, or water is the universal code for happiness – it is a subjective and constantly evolving heuristic.

This relativity is linked to neurochemical thresholds, which modulate over time and in response to our circumstances. The brain does not have a happiness switch. Rather, a concert of neurochemicals, interacting in one of the most precise and complicated ways we can imagine, creating various states of physiological and psychological wellbeing. These neurochemical songs are never played in exactly the same way.

The abstract state of happiness that Charles Barkley felt the first time he scored a basket in his youth basketball league, for example, can never be replayed in his brain. It is different than the happiness he felt when he received his first NBA contract, which is different than the happiness he felt on the day his first child was born. He can come close, but the melodies of that complicated intracranial dance will only occur once. Happiness is relative.

Why is this subjectivity and relativity important? Because Adam Silver was right. NBA players are suffering, in spite of lavish wealth and iconic status.

Commissioner Silver was Right

NBA players have amassed social media followings at a level which is not immediately obvious to the passive observer. Kyrie Irving has 12.5 million people following him on Instagram – that’s a country worth of people. There are more people watching Kyrie’s social media moves than the entire population of Belgium.

LeBron James’ has more followers (47.6 million) than all of Israel, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Norway, Ireland, and Greece, combined. Throw in all of Chicago and you’re almost there. These are not insignificant figures. Our society has never seen anything like this.

Direct connection to that enormous audience has put NBA players in beneficial positions, as wealth, influence, and personal brand can be amassed through these technologies. But they are also far more likely to fall victim to the irresistible hooks of social media.

It is not necessarily the criticism they face on social media that makes these men less happy, as some have suggested, it is the nature of social media itself.

The attention and reward networks of NBA players have been hijacked. (It is happening to us all to some degree.) Billions have been spent to create the addictive interface of the iPhone and its applications. Some of that spending includes consulting fees for Ivy League neuroscientists. Apple, Facebook, and Google are bringing in professors with intricate understanding of the brain and its processes to advise their business model.

The resulting platform designs rope the users and hold tight. While the devices have you, they market to you. That’s the model.

Through a constant barrage of sight and sound, evolving novelty, and challenge that increases at a speed commensurate with the rate of the user’s ability, programmers have created something that humankind has never before been asked to manage.

Even the most engaging plotline in an exciting novel would be interrupted by a barking dog – not so with phones. Parents report their children having little sense of what is going on around them when they are deeply engaged with phones. The children agree. They won’t hear a parent’s direction. They’ll miss an important cue or request. In those moments, they’re hooked.

“These young men are not looking for a comfortable place to rest their heads, they are looking for the IV drip of social acceptance that only comes from constant engagement, including likes, shares, and other invented social currencies”

hooked on social media

Few things in our environment can combat the pull of the supercomputers in our pockets. They are irresistible. There is no better evidence of the danger inherent in these technologies than the fact that the inventors of these technologies (people like Steve Jobs and Evan Williams, creator of Twitter) did not allow their own children to engage with what they had created.

Sadly, Charles, money and lifestyle are not enough. These young men are not looking for a comfortable place to rest their heads, they are looking for the IV drip of social acceptance that only comes from constant engagement, including likes, shares, and other invented social currencies. This has produced a slow, simmering stress which is undoubtedly undercutting the mental state of these players.

User Dependent

The NBA, like any organization or experience, is user-dependent. Michael Jordan interacted with this experience in a specific way, guided by his unique physiology, psychology, and personal set of environmental circumstances. Charles Barkley had his own experience, bringing a unique perspective to his career. Kyrie has his own perspective as well.

It comes down to that thing we should have known from the start – that the I, the me, the self, is what we carry forward into every single situation. We cannot neglect the fact that if the individual entering a situation is not in a healthy place, then the odds of that individual engaging with the situation in a healthy way are drastically skewed.

That is a component of what has happened to Kyrie Irving, and many other superstars. Dollars don’t bring the same joy one would expect if the man with dollars is in a constant state of mild anxiety or low-level depression.

Social media can be a wonderful tool, or a terrible crutch. Commissioner Silver has an identified a real concern. He is now tasked with addressing it.

This May, the NBPA (National Basketball Players Association) will be launching a wellness program. It should include curricula which identifies how to use social media as a tool, rather than being used by it.

I’ll be tuning in to see if he does. I follow @adamsilvernba on Instagram.