Lack of Loyalty in Sports

Larry Weisman, writing in USA Today, points out that “Lack of loyalty in sports doesn’t take sides.” While whistful about the days when a player would spend his whole career with one team, he notes it works both ways.

Ricky Williams quits a week before training camp, leaving the Miami Dolphins without their best offensive player. Eddie George sweats blood for the Tennessee Titans for eight years and is released when he won’t take a pay cut. Carlos Boozer leads the Cleveland Cavaliers to believe he will sign a new contract and then does — with the Utah Jazz. Roger Clemens announces his retirement, accepts the lovely parting gifts that come during his farewell tour with the New York Yankees, then joins the Houston Astros.

Loyalty. In sports? Where a handshake is followed by a quick recount of the fingers? No such thing. Forget the clichés about unity and family. “There has never been loyalty,” says Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association. “When you can’t play, they’ll get rid of you. A guy gets hurt in practice, and they move the drill and keep going. That’s the lesson players learn, and some learn it later than others. This is a business.”

Yep. Families don’t trade away one of the kids for a cousin-to-be-named-later in order to save money on the grocery bill.

“In a sense, I think one reason we’re all so upset with Ricky is that he’s able to say ‘Hakuna Matata’ and just head off. Good for him,” says Roland Lazenby, professor of communications at Virginia Tech. “Given the level of financial independence that professional athletes have, it’s a wonder that more of them don’t do this.” Paul Swangard wonders what could happen if they do. He oversees sports marketing studies at the University of Oregon and sees Williams’ sudden walk as one more insult to the customers. “We just keep waiting for the fans to say enough is enough,” he says.

Not all take umbrage at Williams’ blow-off of his employer (if not his co-workers). “I don’t think he owes the organization anything. I don’t think he owes me anything as a fan. I can do whatever I want. Why can’t he?” asks Bob Covella, vice president of a manufacturing firm in Chicago and a self-described “sports enthusiast” who attends about 30 games a year (baseball, basketball, football, hockey). “The only people he owes are his teammates, and right now they are screwed.”

True all around. In a perfect world, Williams would have made his decision early enough for the Dolphins to make other arrangements and the Titans would have figured out a way to restructure George’s contract. But the NFL is a multi-billion dollar business, with both players and owners making far more money than was imaginable even twenty years ago. That more than makes up for some hurt feelings when hard calls have to be made. The only ones getting screwed here are the fans who, by the nature of the enterprise, invest their loyalties in teams and players.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.