Loyalty doesn’t exist in sports. Period.
Although there isn’t a consensus of its true definition, loyalty is a fundamental characteristic that we would like to think we all possess in some capacity. It’s one of those rare entities that you know when it’s present, but there is no such harmonious agreement when loyalty appears to be absent.
At no time is the idea of loyalty in sports more debated than during player transactions. If a player switches teams in the offseason, he’s viewed as disloyal. If a team trades a marquee player, they are viewed as disloyal. Ironically, if the same player was not performing to expected levels, fans would call for their job and the organization would be applauded if it got rid of them. It seems the loyalty that fans clamor for is really a testament to an entitlement issue among fans and, in some cases, naivety among players.
Truth be told, reciprocity can’t exist in sports. For that matter, reciprocity can’t exist in big business. The two parties are too involved or too different. Therefore, the motivations that exist within each sector of the sports landscape are inherently different.
“All men are loyal, but their objects of allegiance are at best approximate” -John Barth
Fans want their teams to win, and their favorite players to do well. Some people cheer for the home team; some fandom is passed down through generations like a family inheritance. The common denominator to any of these affinities is the emotional ties. The success – or lack thereof – makes fans feel a certain way. Fans of specific players and teams will defend their actions or decisions with vigor as long at is is beneficial to them. Once things turn for the worst on the respective fields of play or even a perceived misstep by the front office, however, the “loyal” fans cry for the jobs of players, coaches, general managers, or all of the above. There is no regard for circumstances, personal responsibilities, or anything other than their team winning. The fans’ only concern is that they are not getting the emotional satisfaction they feel entitled to from rooting for their team and want that to change immediately.
There is no greater hypocrisy than that of a sports fan. They demand loyalty from the stars of their teams so long as that star is a star. If there is any slippage, the alleged loyalty is abandoned because the individual is no longer of value to the team’s success. Now, imagine being a player and the shoe being on the other foot. What if, unbeknownst to the keyboard analyst resting on Twitter that claims to be in the know, you feel that you have outgrown the team you are on and they are not a detriment to your prospective career. Is that player now expected to remain “loyal” to a franchise that drafted him just because they drafted him? Fans expect players to be paid under value to remain on a team that doesn’t value them. Why? So that you can buy a shirt that memorializes a championship or lovingly remember where when they won? Is that loyalty?
“Don’t let your loyalty become slavery. If they don’t appreciate what you bring to the table, let them eat alone” – Anonymous
In life, you don’t get what you deserve. You get what you have the leverage to negotiate. Believe it or not, not every professional athlete has winning a championship as a top priority. Though there are tangible and intangible opportunities that come with being a champion, the more secure bag comes in the form of a contract. There are few times in an athlete’s career where they are able to break the bank. Fans’ inability to fathom such a salary or picture themselves with enough leverage to have complete control over their careers is not a sufficient reason for players to be viewed as anything derogatory when they decide to do what’s best for them. It is counterintuitive for a fan to scream loyalty out of one side of their mouths while requiring fans to ignore their loyalty to their families and personal well beings to fulfill a stranger’s sports fantasy of their team competing for a championship. Fans, typically, care more about an athlete’s legacy than players do. Players often settle into their careers and try to maximize their level. Why are mid-level players not held to the same “loyalty” standard as superstars? Why doesn’t a fan boo Lance Stephenson for signing with the Hornets but hates Paul George’s voicing his desire to be traded? Why is Bill Belichick lauded for dumping players once they don’t fit the system anymore, but any Patriot that wants out is scrutinized for not being a champion? Because a fan’s fickle loyalty rests comfortably on the idea of their team being the best it can be, and ensuring that is a reality even if the player that moves is loyal to the same thing.
Fans have no knowledge of inner workings of organizations, and certainly are not privy to conversations behind the scenes. Yet, with limited information and obvious longstanding bias, fans still believe that players should share their affinity for the team that selected them and ignore personal advancement. Essentially, they expect athletes to operate from a “happy to be here” standpoint. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not loyalty. That is entitlement. The players owe you absolutely nothing, and vice versa.
“I’m a businessman, and a businessman is most loyal to the money” -J Prince
Many athletes have grown up playing sports. Not only were they a part of a team, but they most likely were the stars of that team, area, region, state or nation. They have been beloved for the majority of their lives but still lived in fairly controlled environments. They were raved about in various publications. Most importantly, they’ve been around their family and friends for their entire existence. They’ve gone from playing little league and high school with guys they’ve known forever. The neighborhood looks after them and praises them for representing well. These athletes then go off to college where they are still a part of a program but a bigger picture. They work out, live, walk the campus, eat lunch, play video games, go out and holler at girls together. They are unified in their struggle to adapt to a new environment, secluded in their bubble of collegiate athletics, and deified for their remarkable talents. The fan bases of their college teams, which most likely have been fans for said team for years, have been welcoming the athletes for months before they even arrive on campus. This Truman Show-like reality creates a built-in level of loyalty. The athletes belong to something. All young kids crave a sense of belonging. That’s why they join gangs, make up clique names, or hang exclusively with their teammates throughout their lives. It’s a brotherhood. Ride or die. They get their neighborhoods, area codes, and block creeds tattooed on their skin to pledge their undying loyalty. Pro athletes have operated with this pack mentality for their entire lives. Then, overnight, they become pros. As a pro, it’s a completely different game, jack. You are on your own. You didn’t grow up with these people. There are no more social gatherings for you to attend together. You all are not on contrived equal playing field. No more teammates that are roommates. Hard bottoms and suit jackets have now replaced the shorts and whistle as the attire of the dude who holds your athletic livelihood in their hands. There are no more study halls and no safety net of everybody knowing your status year after year. You are a pro. An employee. Your job is to be great at what you do at all times or be replaced. Not benched but replaced. The million-dollar salary that athletes obtain is dwarfed by the BILLION dollar deals the owner is seeking to acquire based on your success. Like the player, that owner and general manager have people that they are responsible for. He or she has people that they must be loyal to. Are they to disregard those obligations to remain “loyal” to an employee if that employee is causing his or her job to become more difficult? Are owner and general managers to ignore the bottom line in the name of “loyalty?”
Franchise owners have an obligation to the bottom line. Point blank. They love the players but can’t be in love with them. Not dissimilar from other big business corporations, decisions have to be made with their current proverbial pockets and projections in mind. Some owners will pay exorbitant luxury taxes as a penalty for a roster salary that exceeds the cap. However, it doesn’t take a business savant to understand that, either that owner will have to bring in more revenue to satisfy the tax (which increases do to repeater penalties), or eventually start to trim the salaries. The winning can obviously lead to opportunities, but that only indirectly affects the organization and is inherently temporary. In a Forbes’ article posted just last week, the Dallas Cowboys sit squarely atop the list of most valuable sports franchises for the third straight year. To put it in perspective, the Cowboys’ last Super Bowl win was on January 28, 1996. Leighton Vander Esch, the Cowboys’ 2018 First Round draft pick was born over a year later on February 9, 1997. It has been a while since the Cowboys have won it all, yet they have climbed to the apex of the money list during that time. The top 25 of that list will also include American Sports teams, such as the New York Knicks and Jets, Washington Redskins, the aforementioned 49ers, Los Angeles Dodgers and Rams, Houston Texans, and Miami Dolphins. These teams are in the upper echelon of valued franchises in the world, yet only one of them has won a title in the last 20 years. That team was the St. Louis Rams who have since relocated to Los Angeles because of business.
Business follows the money. That is what makes business, well, business. Players enter their respective leagues more accustomed to the neighborhood mentality of “we’re in this together” than an understanding that they are responsible for being their own company. Many of these young men and women have been alive for fewer years than their respective owners have been wealthy. Even more so, many have been alive for fewer years than the fans of their teams have been such. Therefore, there is imbalance that doesn’t allow for true loyalty to exist. Sports is one of the few occupations where employees both yield power – and are powerless – simultaneously. Only in sports do people, who have nothing to do with the outcome or productivity level, comment incessantly about the job of the actual employees. The irony comes in that the business is co-piloted by these very people. These people are the fans, the lifeblood of any organization. This is the reason the Cowboys are the most valuable sports franchise in the world. It is the Business Circle of Life. The fans, at the bottom of the sports structure, play a significant role in the decision making of those atop the organizational structure. Players reside squarely in the middle.
The ugly truth is that rich (mostly white) owners are only “loyal” to players because they work for them. The overwhelming majority of the players on every team in every league are viewed as replaceable. Consider this: The Pittsburgh Steelers became in NFL franchise in 1933 with an owner named Art Rooney. Eight and a half decades later, the Rooney family still owns the Pittsburgh Steelers. The team is a family staple. How can they be expected to choose Leveon Bell over the greater good of a family heirloom? Bell, as great as he is, can and will be replaced. You know who will probably own the Pittsburgh Steelers for another 85 years? The Rooneys. You know who will not being playing running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers for at least 75 of those 85 years? Leveon Bell.
“My only loyalty is to what’s best for business, not any set of constituents.” Ram Shriram
Loyalty is linked to emotion, and there is no room for emotion in business. Consistent effective decisions cannot be made based on fleeting feelings. It is a job of a business owner to try to get the most out of his or her employees for the least amount of money. Dollars and cents stand in place of emotions and benevolence when it comes to the bottom line. A young guy from Compton and person who owns a team due solely to nepotism and comes from a family that has had generational wealth for decades, or even one that has enough money to purchase a sports franchise, have two completely different approaches to life. Asking one to be loyal to the other is asking two people from different worlds to understand each other without a translator. Expecting loyalty to one another is insanity. To put it plainly, the term “business relationship” is an oxymoron in sports. The relationship is parasitic at best and codependent at the very least. One is trying to survive off of the other. The player either holds the leverage to squeeze the team, or the team has the leverage to squeeze the player out. Either way, one is the parasite and one is the host. Individual skills, on the court and in the boardroom, decide who plays which role. Once one is no longer advantageous to the other, it is time to move on before both perish.
I think we can agree that despite the seemingly fluid definition of loyalty, it requires reciprocity. There is no possible way an employee-employer relationship can exhibit reciprocal love, appreciation, or compensation. Loyalty cannot, and therefore DOES not, exist in sports.
“Loyalty that is bought with money, may be overcome by money.” – Seneca