Loyalty is an interesting thing in the context of professional sports. Of course, I'm writing this the day after LeBron James announced that he's leaving the state of Ohio for the first time in his basketball career to play in Miami with some other friends - and great basketball players - next season.
People are angry. There are jerseys burning in the streets. The owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers wrote a scorching letter (in Comic Cans font!?) accusing his former moneymaker of quitting on his team in the playoffs. He also - like many others - are making a point of crushing the guy for being disloyal.
And that's where things get confusing to me. The premise seems to be that LeBron is turning his back on his city, his state, his people. He's just stabbed them all viciously in the back and laughed as he twisted the knife before jumping the charter jet to Florida. But what is loyalty in professional sports? Doesn't it work both ways?
In any sport, franchises routinely sign players for as many years as possible, and they also routinely trade or cut these players before their contracts expire. The team owners expect these players to honor their contracts while they themselves do the opposite. Where's the loyalty in that?
So players get as much money as they can get in guaranteed money and make decisions based on what they want. If a team is not going to be "loyal" to them, why should they return the favor? They've only got a window of a few years to earn as much as they can, so why wouldn't they get what they can get? Pro sports is a business, and business is about making money. The teams want to make money; the players want to make money. So wherever a player can make more money, they'll do it. Now, I understand that in this particular scenario it's likely that all LeBron (and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) will make less than they could so that they can play together, but if you factor in the possible endorsement deals and global fame they'll receive from winning championships, they probably stand to do a little better outside of basketball.
Anyway, I just think it's ridiculous that we kill these athletes for being "disloyal," as if they need to clear their career decisions with us, the fans. Be upset; that's part of being a fan. But a businessman made a business decision, and that's that. It's not loyal or disloyal. And by the way, ask Kevin Garnett what "loyalty" gets you in sports. One of the best players in the game, he stayed loyal to the team that drafted him, giving his best years to the Minnesota Timberwolves on teams that never made it past the first round of the playoffs. By the time that he realized the team ownership was too cheap to ever bring in a good enough supporting cast, he was past his prime. At that point, he jumped ship to the Boston Celtics and won a championship (and played in two other NBA finals). Had he been "disloyal" earlier, who knows how many others he may have won?
I'm not defending these players, especially the way in which LeBron (and Wade and Bosh) carried themselves through this free agency period. The documentary cameras, the drama, the nationally televised "decision" show were pretty crass if you ask me. All these guys make a lot more money that I'll ever see, so Cleveland vs. any other city is kind of moot point at some level. I'm also not defending the ownership of any of these teams. If sports is supposed to be about winning, then I guess some others have to lose. Dan Gilbert is doubly angry because his team now lost their best chance to win on the court and literally millions upon millions of dollars in revenue. But firing off an angry letter - especially one in Comic Sans - is pretty ridiculous.
I've already gone too long here, but there's also an interesting parallel here with the music business. For years, major labels have operated just like these owners, signing artists to contracts for as many years/albums possible for no other reason than to keep the labels' options open. There were no guarantees an artist would every get to release the number of albums stated in his/her contract, or if an album would be released period. The label could agree to whatever they wanted without having to actually deliver.
So the artists countered by looking to get as much money up front as possible (in the form of an advance) which was the only money they were guaranteed to ever receive. And at some point, when an artist "made it" to the point where they were commanding top dollar at concert venues and selling millions of albums, many of them would jump ship to other labels who were offering them something more. The artists were essentially allowing themselves to get screwed up front in the hopes that they could reach a level of superstardom that would allow them to either renegotiate or jump ship to another label.
Music, like pro sports, is ultimately a business. So labels sign artists to contracts that best suit the labels, and artist's make decisions based on what's best for their careers. So maybe "loyalty" is really about honoring your contract and less about some sort of moral responsibility.
And all of these basketball players did that, whether I personally like them or not.
Hey, I'm as guilty as anyone of looking at sports as an analogy for life, but by that, I'm referring to the actual competition that happens on the court (or field, or whatever) and not rest of it. The business part of it - that's not life. If you want to despise these guys because they make lots of money for doing something very inconsequential in the broad scope of things (they do get paid millions to put a ball in a hoop), you're free to do that. So yeah, there are good reasons for not liking professional athletes. But "loyalty" in this context is not one of them.
Posted via email from JasonHarwell.com