So what shall we say about Vince Carter?
For the last few days, this has been the question dividing sports fans. Shall we call him a level-headed young man with his priorities in order?
Or shall we call him, simply, selfish?
Carter, for those of you who never venture to the sports pages, is an all-star forward for the Toronto Raptors. And as for what he did that has some folks defending, and others questioning, his character, it's simple. He attended his college graduation.
If this leaves you flummoxed, join the club.
Here's what happened: Carter's graduation from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill was on Sunday morning. The Raptors had a do-or-die playoff game that night in Philadelphia. Win, and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Lose, and go home.
So the young star left the team Saturday night in Philly and headed to North Carolina. He's said to have spent less than half an hour at the graduation just long enough to cross the stage in his cap and gown. After that, he hopped a private plane and high-tailed it back to Philly. He was on time for the game, didn't even miss the pregame meeting.
That's all he did. But from the way some people reacted, you'd think the guy stole money from the collection plate. The criticism intensified after Carter missed a last-second shot that would have won the game. His coach and teammates grumbled, a columnist for New York Newsday hyperventilated about how he had put himself ahead of the team and a writer for The Toronto Sun deemed his decision here's that word again "selfish."
Me, I think they've all got a hell of a nerve. And mind you, I speak as a pro basketball fan-addict. During the playoffs, I study the sports pages like a Talmudic scholar. But for all that, there are things many things more important to me than putting a ball through a hoop. Sports is not life.
It's a simple ideal to which we all pay lip service. But for many of us, lip service is all it is.
I'm reminded of that dopey comment a few years ago from Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell, to the effect that the "pride and presence" of a pro football team are more important to a community than 30 libraries. Reminded, too, of the Houston Oilers player who was docked a week's pay $125,000 eight years ago when he missed a regular season game in order to stay with his wife during childbirth.
Yet, offensive as both those episodes were, there's something particularly insidious about this one. Hypocritical, too. I mean, you can hardly watch a basketball game without running into one of those "Reading Is Fundamental" commercials in which some hoops star Carter included is seen touting the NBA's support of literacy and, by extension, education itself.
Yet, faced with an opportunity to actually demonstrate that support, these players and coaches choked. None of his critics has been able to say with specificity how Carter's brief absence damaged the Raptors. But that doesn't seem to be what bothers them anyway. Rather, it's the idea that he had allowed his attention to be diverted by something as trivial as a graduation ceremony.
After all, sneered Newsday, "there is no way he will ever need his degree to make a living."
Which is, emphatically, not the point. Higher education is not simply about making a living, but about making a life. We used to know that. We seem to have forgotten it somewhere along the way.
And for all the time we spend debating the importance of sports stars as role models, it's interesting the way some of us behave when one of them finally does something worth emulating. The lesson this young black athlete delivers by the simple act of graduating is one no slam-dunk, baseline drive or three-point bomb ever could: Education matters. We ought to celebrate whenever that message is communicated to children, and in particular yes, I'm going to go there to black children, whose aggregated educational performance is so dismal.
Instead, some of us are worried about a game.
And they think Carter's the one with a problem?