An Important Shot Bricked Off the Glass

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If ESPN is going to advertise their story with a provocative before-and-after pictorial of Kevin Love’s body transformation, then let me begin my response by pointing out that the chiseled-armed latter version of Love is arguably a worse player than his earlier, pudgier self.

Sure, now that Love is LeBron’s sidekick in Cleveland rather than the focal point of offense in Minnesota, one might expect some of his numbers to be down. However, his points per game, rebounds per game, and assists per game have all worsened despite nearly identical minutes per game and playing in the midst of what should be his peak basketball years. That’s tough to do. Given that, someone will have to explain to me why we are focusing on his physique instead of his noteworthy and curious decline.

That someone, however, might not be Jackie MacMullan. Normally a fantastic sports journalist, one of the best in her field, she took a shot at an important subject with her ESPN article entitled, “From Kevin Love to Draymond Green, NBA players struggle with food more than you think,” but uncharacteristically threw up a brick.

Her piece begins with a detailed account of Love’s meticulous and rigid eating habits. “Not 10 almonds, not 18 almonds — 14 almonds,” his trainer reports. “Kevin is exactly on point. If he’s supposed to eat every two hours, then on the days when he wants to sleep in, he’ll wake up, eat and go back to sleep.” Even his teammates raise their eyebrows at his eating behaviors, which also include bringing his own food on the team plane rather than “be tempted by a postgame spread that might be high in calories and carbohydrates.”

The aforementioned content and the article’s title set up perfectly to discuss disordered eating, which is sorely in need of more attention and dialogue. “NBA players, in truth, are just like us,” the author writes, before listing various eating behaviors common to both professional athletes and laymen. A glaring omission from her list is that professionals are susceptible to dysfunctional relationships with food, eating disorders, and nutrition myths just like the rest of us. Sometimes abnormal behaviors are so prevalent that we mistake them as normal, and I think the author may have fallen into that trap.

More troubling is that instead of discussing Love’s eating habits as a red flag of concern, the author presents them in the context of his lower weight and improved endurance. Consider the impact this kind of message has on readers. For you parents out there, do not be surprised in the least when you walk into the kitchen and find your teenager counting out his or her almonds.

Furthermore, while Love is no doubt eating in a way that he believes serves him best on the court, we must remember that professional athletes often focus on the here and now while long-term risks take a back seat. The stakes are simply different for them. Professionals put their long-term health on the line for short-term rewards that are unavailable to the rest of us. Love just rushed back on the court from a concussion so he could continue playing in the NBA finals. If you suffered a similar concussion, would you risk permanent brain damage in order to play out the remainder of your YMCA rec league’s spring season? Similarly, readers must understand that following an eating plan as rigid as Love’s is risky and makes little sense for the general population.

The author turns her attention to Oliver Miller, “. . . who at his peak weighed over 375 pounds, ate so much of it [pizza] that the Suns took drastic measures, including hospitalizing him and hooking him up to IV fluids. ‘But then they found out he was ordering Domino’s from the hospital,’ [former teammate Danny] Ainge says. ‘They had to put a security guard outside the room.'” Under a photograph of Miller is a caption reading, “Oliver Miller had to be hospitalized because he couldn’t keep his eating under control. The root of his career-long battle? Pizza.”

Look, I have never met Oliver Miller or viewed his medical records, but whatever was going on with him during his playing days, I promise you that the root cause was not pizza. By talking about pizza, or any other specific food, in this way, the author further propagates the myth of food addiction. When we abandon the diet mentality, uncouple moralization from eating behaviors, break up the good/bad food dichotomy, build intuitive-eating skills, and make trigger foods available in abundance, “food addiction” typically resolves, which is the exact opposite outcome that an addiction model would predict in response to such treatment.

Even if Miller was suffering from binge eating disorder, which, as with other eating disorders, is a mental illness that gets played out through food, pizza is still not responsible for his struggles. More importantly, neither you nor I know whether or not he had such a disorder. Hopefully, one of our takeaways from our shameful treatment of Pablo Sandoval over the winter is the lesson that we cannot determine someone’s relationship with food or the presence of an eating disorder based on his or her body size or weight. The notion that we can is yet another myth.

“But it’s not as easy as simply losing weight. Becoming lighter, in many cases, often doesn’t translate into peak performance,” the author later writes. While I completely agree, the article’s subsequent content seems tenuously related at best. She discusses Roy Hibbert, who lost weight upon request by one coach and then put it back on when the Pacers hired a new coach who asked him to regain it, but that was apparently related to differing philosophies in team play between the two coaches, not a change in Hibbert’s performance. A more direct and relevant example would have been to discuss Love’s aforementioned regression despite his body transformation.

The article’s most important passage reads, “Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle says the one thing he has learned in his 27 years in the league is not to judge a player by his body type. Mavericks guard Raymond Felton, for instance, is more diligent about his diet than Russell Westbrook, yet you’d never know it by a simple eye test.” So true, but these 54 words are drowned out in a 2,910-word article largely about dieting and weight. Besides, in an age in which attention spans seem to rarely exceed 140 characters, how many readers even make it far enough in the article to reach this important paragraph?

While I commend the author for taking on this topic, her article could have been so much more than it is. She could have brought to light the societal prevalence of disordered eating, eating disorders, and nutrition misinformation so widespread that they infiltrate professional locker rooms. She could have explored how the eating habits of star athletes impact the general population, especially minors. She could have addressed the dangers and damage stemming from coupling weight with performance. Instead, she did none of those.

Ms. MacMullan, an important story is begging to be written here, and I believe you can still author it. Please consider grabbing your own rebound and putting up another shot.

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