Felger: If we ever get to the point where we can’t fat shame athletes, I quit.
Massarotti: It’s coming.
Felger: It is coming.
Massarotti: It might already be here already.
Felger: It’s not. We’re not talking about a teenage girl. We’re talking about professional athletes whose job it is is to be in shape. We are allowed to call them fat and tease them for being fat. If that becomes off limits, I’m done.
The aforementioned exchange, which took place in the context of discussing Kyle Lowry of the Miami Heat, occurred between co-hosts Michael Felger and Tony Massarotti near the end of their Felger & Mazz sports talk show on May 17, 2023. Much like the fat shaming directed at Pablo Sandoval seven years ago, this problematic dialogue misses the mark and causes harm.
Felger asserted that part of a professional athlete’s job is to be in shape, but what constitutes “in shape” should not be defined by anthropometrics, such as weight or body fat percentage, but rather by an athlete’s readiness to perform their given sport at the level their employers expect of them. If an athlete lacks the strength, endurance, or flexibility to perform, the deficiency in their fitness is the real issue regardless of how their body is built; otherwise, teams would just fill their rosters with bodybuilders and models and call it a day.
“In shape” is also context dependent, as the physical abilities necessary to perform at a high level vary from sport to sport. A gymnast who lifts weights and runs but never stretches, a shot putter who stretches and runs but never lifts, and a marathoner who stretches and lifts but never runs would all have serious issues with their performance regardless of how their bodies look.
Besides, Kyle Lowry is actually quite a good basketball player. Lowry is in the midst of finishing his 17th season in the NBA, he earned spots in six straight All-Star games from 2015 to 2020, he started all 65 regular season and 24 playoff games that his team played on their way to winning the 2019 championship, and he was a member of the USA Olympic team that won the gold medal in 2016. Sure, his statistics dropped off a bit this season, but blaming the dip on his physique – which looks to be the same now as it did four years ago – is a bit of a head-scratcher considering the 37-year-old is the seventh oldest player (out of approximately 450) in a league where the average player is 26.01 years old. According to basketball-reference.com, Lowry’s career performance arc is thus far most similar to those of Terry Porter, Vince Carter, and Allen Iverson, the latter of whom is already enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and another – Carter – will likely get in too once he is eligible.
Lowry is far from the only “fat” athlete to outperform many of his leaner peers. The aforementioned Sandoval made over $73 million during his 14 years in the major leagues, and the two-time All-Star was named Most Valuable Player in one of the three World Series that his teams won. Pat Maroon was fat shamed despite winning three straight Stanley Cups. Back in Lowry’s realm of basketball, Luka Doncic’s own boss criticized him for his weight despite winning Rookie of the Year, then being named an All-Star and making the All-NBA first team in the four seasons he has played since then.
However, the most concerning part of Felger’s opinion is that he seems ignorant of the impact that his sentiments have on people other than professional athletes. “We’re not talking about a teenage girl,” he said, but the reality is that fat shaming anybody breeds fat shaming in general. Discussing the reasons why criticizing Donald Trump for his weight is harmful, Ragen Chastain explained, “And make no mistake, when you engage in fat-shaming, your victim is every single fat person.” The ramifications of fat shaming athletes are clear, as I discussed in the Boston Baseball article I wrote about Sandoval back in 2016.
“Fans and media have labeled Sandoval ‘disgusting,’ ‘lazy,’ and ‘pathetic,’ implying that those same terms apply to everyone who has a body type similar to his.
The message is that fat is to be loathed, that larger individuals are not worthy of the respect enjoyed by the rest of us. We reject stereotypes based on race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation but we inexplicably tolerate those based on body size.
The idea that we can tell how someone eats or exercises based on his shape or weight is a myth. Some people built like linebackers never lift weights. Some skinny-as-a-rail folks subsist on fast food. And some obese individuals are more active and have a healthier relationship with food than any of them, but inhabit bigger bodies for other reasons.
As we all know, pressure to be thin leads to dieting, which can lead to a variety of problems, including eating disorders. These life-threatening illnesses are so common in Massachusetts that if the crowd at a sold-out Fenway Park represented a random sample of the state’s population, those in attendance with a diagnosed eating disorder would fill section 41.”
Sounds like Felger’s intent was to focus his fat shame on professional athletes while sparing others – and good thing it was, for his behavior would be even more problematic if his intent was otherwise – but we all know that intent and impact are two different entities. Felger certainly should know this, as his co-host was suspended just three months ago for making a poor attempt at humor that came off as racially insensitive. Like Massarotti, Felger should have known better.
If Felger is unwilling to forego fat shaming professional athletes, then the time for him to quit truly has arrived.