On Wednesday, Outside the Lines aired a segment titled "Distraction Myth," in which panelists debated whether Tony Dungy's remark that he wouldn't have drafted Michael Sam carried any logic. Former New York Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce led off: "I don't want to talk about...what's your religion, what's your sexual orientation, I just want to talk about how we're gonna get better and how we're gonna get to [the Super Bowl] this year."
That mindset is the fuel behind the fire of distraction -- the idea that having to discuss anything other than Xs and Os detracts from on-field performance. In January, Drew Magary at Deadspin wrote that the word "distraction" has been co-opted by the sports media for years "as a catch-all term...and it remains both pervasive and utterly meaningless."
Distractions have become the instant oatmeal of sports debate. It's such a popular topic largely because it's plausible. "I think we can frame anything as distraction that takes someone's focus from the tasks at hand," Dr. Keith Kaufman, a researcher at Catholic University and a sports psychologist, told me over the phone. It's not so much about the time spent discussing the issue with the media, but whether the topic occupies the player's mind once the interview ends.
But in order for this to hold any water, the distraction has to actually affect something. We have to see the impact; otherwise the debate is merely academic. So I took a look at some recent "distractions" to see how they affected their teams on the field. This is not meant to be an all-encompassing analysis -- or to draw any comparisons between the various examples -- but merely analyze whether each player's "distractions" actually mattered for their specific team.
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In the most similar case to Michael Sam, Jason Collins came out as gay, which led some to speculate that he'd be a distraction for any team that signed him. One of the first to apply the D-word was not a member of the media, but an NBA player, Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich told the Chicago Sun-Times the day Collins's announcement was published, "[Collins's announcement] really is not significant to me. It surprised me, but it's just a big distraction right now."
When training camps opened the following season, Marc Stein at ESPN listed potential distraction as the primary reason Collins remained unsigned: "Having Collins on the roster from Day One turns media day into Jason Collins day and creates an undeniable distraction in October at a time when obsessive coaches don't want to think about anything other than reinforcing the ins and outs of their offensive and defensive systems." Stein was echoing a sentiment that Antonio Pierce and countless other players and coaches have expressed over the years. Ric Bucher at Bleacher Report essentially repeated the claim. When Collins was signed by the Nets, teammate Deron Williams worried about the potential media distraction, although he was careful to clarify that it wasn't Collins himself who was the distraction, but the media coverage surrounding him.
These prognostications never came to pass. As Josh Levin pointed out at Slate, the media never swarmed the Nets. To update the Google Trends graph Levin used:
The big blip is, of course, when Collins came out. Point B is when the Nets signed Collins, but as you can see, by the end of the month he was only slightly more of a "distraction" than he was on the Celtics before he came out.
As far as the Nets' performance goes, they were 25-28 when they signed Collins, and went 10-3 in their first 13 games after he joined the team. If only every team could find such a distraction.
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The Richie Incognito bullying episode was one of the biggest stories of last season. In the first Dolphins game after the scandal broke, they lost to the Buccaneers on Monday Night Football, leading many outlets to conclude the bullying scandal was a distraction for the team. "Dolphins lose first game since bullying scandal broke to previously winless Tampa Bay," read a Fox News headline, implying a link between the two incidents. Before the Dolphins squared off against the Jets on Dec. 1, the NBC New York affiliate wrote, "Whatever your personal feelings on the saga may be, there's no doubt it has created an incredibly unwanted off-field distraction for Miami." And an anonymous executive told USA Today, "Confusion and distractions can destroy a team."
If anything, the controversy galvanized the Dolphins. When the story broke, the Dolphins were 1-4 in their previous five games. After the bullying situation came to light, the Dolphins went 4-2 in their next six contests. Admittedly, the Dolphins had a much tougher schedule prior to the scandal, but it's still tough to say the controversy "destroyed the team" when their record drastically improved.
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Last year, at the start of Eagles training camp, Deadspin released a video of Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper spewing a racial slur. Sports writers across the country predicted it would be a huge -- wait for it -- distraction!
"Riley Cooper, in less than 48 hours, has become a major distraction for the Eagles," wrote Mike Florio at ProFootballTalk. ESPN's SportsNation ran a poll: "Will Riley Cooper's presence on the Eagles be a distraction this season?" (54 percent answered "no," 46 percent "yes." Of course, SportsNation polls are the polling equivalent of a children's book.) In an NFL.com video, former players Willie McGinnest and Shawn Merriman debated, "Will Riley Cooper continue to be a distraction?" (Neither of them answered the question, in the way that athletes never really answer the question asked.) Cooper's teammate, Jason Avant, told USA Today, "He's done the little things to stay out of the negative things that could be a distraction.''
If Riley Cooper was a distraction, he was a damn useful one. Last season was undoubtedly his best on the Eagles: 47 receptions for 835 yards and eight touchdowns. Football Outsiders ranked Cooper as the 19th-best wide receiver based on Defensive-Adjusted Yards Over Replacement. The Eagles went 10-6 and won the division, a vast improvement over their 4-12 record the previous season.
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After Sherman's epic rant during the NFC Championship post-game, some prominent media circles were asking if he would become a distraction. (Posing that question in the future tense manages to make an already-meaningless question even more meaningless.)
Former New England Patriot Heath Evans thought so: "Distraction? I say it is, but that's because I have so much Bill Belichick in my mind that anything that takes away from the team is a negative." Nancy Armour at USA Today thought so as well: "Sherman has now made himself the focus, rather than his team. That's a distraction the young Seahawks don't need, especially when they're facing Manning, a four-time MVP who is making his third trip to the Super Bowl." So much for that.
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We could also talk about Ben Roethlisberger's motorcycle accident, Jameis Winston's sexual assault allegations, Jim Irsay's DWI, Josh Gordon's DWI -- any DWI, really -- or Aldon Smith's drunk driving and weapons charges, or any other arrest. It seems many world-class athletes are capable of compartmentalizing off-field issues without it affecting on-field performance.
Still, this doesn't mean distractions are a complete myth. Athletes are not automatons. They're human beings capable of dealing with some -- but not infinitely many -- concerns to varying degrees. "I'm always skeptical of someone who says they have this singular focus [on sports] all the time," Dr. Kaufman said. "I question whether that's even possible." Lest we forget, athletes have friends, families and problems. They marry and sometimes get divorced. Their parents grow old. Their children have bad days at school or get sick. Their air conditioning and toilets malfunction. Their cars break down when they have to be somewhere important. It's not that athletes never get distracted, but the distractions are usually things we don't discuss or see. National headlines, on the other hand, are often issues they're prepared to deal with. As Dr. Kaufman put it, "I think real life often intrudes upon athletic performance. You've got your on-the-field stuff and off-the-field stuff, and sometimes they filter into each other." Just like everyone else, some athletes deal with these issues better than others.
The distraction narrative is not about the players or coaches, but the media. It allows sportswriters to "stick to sports" for stories that aren't about sports. It is a way to build a facade to avoid the issue behind it. More often than not, the players can cope just fine. We're the ones who are distracted.