Jun 13, 2012

Loyalty in sports: a flawed concept?

Loyalty is often thought of as one of the most admirable personality traits, and as such, is frequently used as a litmus test for an individual's character.

Loyalty, or lack thereof, has also been one of the most popular complaints among the average sports fan, mainly directed toward professional athletes in a team setting, but increasingly toward managers, owners, and even among fans themselves.

It is rather ironic, then, that this year's NBA Finals is being contested between the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder, both teams that morphed into championship contenders after two of the most villainous acts in sports history. Unfair though this designation may be, LeBron James and Clay Bennett have become the face of disloyalty and treason in basketball, if not sports altogether.

Most NBA fans still vividly remember The Decision; there is the indelible image of LeBron James, announcing on national television that he was taking his talents to South Beach instead of staying with the Cleveland Cavaliers. More fans are becoming aware of the cloudy circumstances behind Oklahoma City's arrival as a major-league town, which began after Clay Bennett and his cronies, with an assist from Howard Schultz, relocated the Seattle Supersonics to OKC.

Both incidents have received substantial coverage and attention ever since, but they have taken a backseat to the build-up to the Finals. Nevertheless, they provide an insight into the place of loyalty in sports -- namely, whether that concept even has a place in sports at all.

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Last September, a promising footballer named Islam Feruz left Scottish club Celtic for a more lucrative offer from Chelsea, this year's Champions League winners. Originally from Somalia, he had faced deportation from the UK before his club intervened, helping to secure residency for him and his family. He had debuted for the Scottish national team at the youth level, and was considered the brightest prospect that Celtic had produced in years.

And then he was gone, seemingly scurried off to London without leaving a trace. I wrote in the aftermath that Feruz had become another example of the effects of modern football, where players his age got their heads turned by money signs, brighter lights, and shady "handlers." I specifically criticized the people around him for their money-grabbing ways, believing that they should have remained faithful to the club that rescued them when they were days from being driven out of the country.

I genuinely believed that... until I put on Islam Feruz's boots and scampered for a mile with it.

There's no guarantee that Feruz would have turned out to be a star player for Celtic, let alone for Chelsea. However, there is a pronounced hierarchy in club football, where one team is clearly superior to the other in terms of money and talent, if not history. Chelsea, at the time being, are infinitely more attractive to a player than Celtic, from both a professional and financial standpoint. That is what it came down to for the young man and his support team.

They call it professional sports for a reason. It's a profession. It's an industry. It's a business. At its very basic level, pro sports is no different from any other form of industry. It's one team trying to present a better product than the rest of the competition. It's the management team trying to piece together the right set of players into a cohesive team. It's the players trying to find the right situation for themselves.

Make note of the last sentence of that paragraph, because that applies to the vast majority of us, as well.

* * *
I have worked at the same company for the last four years. Since graduating from college, I have sent in a large number of resumes to employers from seemingly every corner of the internet... a hefty chunk of which were for jobs within my company. It is only in recent months that I have been presented with an internship within another department, with a view of transitioning into an official position within the next few months.

Yet, if I were to be presented with a career opportunity tomorrow that was better than what I have on offer now, I would not take two minutes before jumping all over it. I've come to realize that, despite working for years at the same office, in the same company, I don't feel any sense of loyalty to my employers. None of the tasks I perform on a daily basis is done out of some sense of commitment to my company's cause, or for the betterment of our department.

My overall attitude toward my occupation is this: I do what I do to earn a weekly paycheck, and to put myself in a better position for advancement, whether it's a month from now, a year from now, or even decades from now. My loyalty, at least in the professional sense, only extend to myself and my co-workers.

I haven't been in contact with enough professional athletes in my lifetime to know for sure whether this is also true for them, but given the cutthroat nature of the pro sports industry, I suspect that is indeed the case. The role players are moved constantly moved around like chess pieces. Even superstars aren't immune to being discarded at some point in their careers. Just ask Peyton Manning about his final days with Colts... or Patrick Ewing with the Knicks... or Willie Mays with the Giants... or Raul with Real Madrid. The list goes on.

This is why I don't hold grudges against players who choose to leave my teams. I find it pointless to take shots at players who decide to move on, especially because they're doing what many of us would do under similar circumstances. Sure, you get the spectacularly mismanaged separations like the Cavaliers and LeBron on rare occasions, but most of the time, the players do what they do because it makes the most sense to them at the time. In the end, a player departure has nothing on a team deserting its city.

* * *
One thing I have noticed about LeBron's Decision is that he is still attracting an enormous amount of derision and ridicule for a single television event which took place two years ago. This in stark contrast to the scorn reserved for the likes of Bennett and Schultz following the Seattle Supersonics' move to Oklahoma City. It took a Finals run by the Thunder for many outside of the Pacific Northwest to recall that a basketball team called Emerald City home.

I've always found this bizarre, because on the surface, the departure of a team from a city should result in a much bigger outpouring of sympathy from an entire sports fanbase than a departure of a player from a team. Yet, the average fan seems more interested in taking James to task for abandoning Cleveland, than in calling out the former (and technically, still current) Sonics' ownership for wheeling a team out of a city where it was a cultural institution for over 40 years.

That's the dirty little secret about professional sports that most of us have yet to catch onto: Team owners couldn't possibly care less about their city or their fans. Their primary concern lies with generating revenue; their primary loyalty is to themselves. Put another way, they are no different from the "mercenery" athletes they flip around on a regular basis.

Nowhere does the owners' obsession with money and power manifest itself more than at the new, opulent, state of the art venues for sports teams. Every new stadium the last two decades has been built largely on the taxpayers' dime, with teams' contributions often ranging from "disproportionately small" to "fraudulently miniscule." It is nowadays rare to see an owner announcing plans for a privately financed venue; the threat of relocation has been far more frequent during stadium talks.

The city of Orlando went through the same merry-go-round with its new downtown arena. Long story short: The Magic owners (DeVos family) cried out for a replacement venue; they made veiled threats to relocation as the talks progressed; a deal was passed between owners and the city, without ever being put up for a vote; and ultimately, an arena was built at cost of nearly $500 million, with the Magic picking no more than $100 million of the tab.

Read the last sentence again. The Magic contributed no more than 20% of the cost of the new arena, leaving the proverbial man on the streets to make up the rest. How is that any way to repay the faith of a city that has supported them for more than a generation?

To this day, I remain convinced that if that arena deal was presented to the people of Orlando, as a similar one was in Seattle, it would have been rejected outright -- and rightfully so. But that outcome could have easily led to our team jetting off for the Great Plains.

* * *
Like any other word, it is easier to look up the definition of "loyalty" in a textbook than it is through real-life experiences. When placed in a sports context, coming to a consensus on its meaning becomes an impossible task. The Dwight Howard saga here in Orlando illustrates this point perfectly.

Recently, Adidas began selling a Dwight-themed shirt which had the word "loyalty" printed out prominently in the middle. The design was met with widespread ridicule from most fans and media members, though Magic fans were somewhat muted in their response, perhaps retaining hope that he will live up to his word and remain faithful to the city of Orlando and its basketball team.

Could he leave Orlando behind by this time next year? That almost seems like a foregone conclusion at this point, unless the new management team can convince him to stay in town. On the other hand, he has already played eight years here. How many players can claim to have spent that many years with one team these days? Don't you think someone like Courtney Lee, who has already been traded twice in his career, would love to have that kind of stability?

Depending on who you ask in Orlando, Dwight has either earned the right to leave town if he wishes, or should be considered a traitor if he does bolt. So what exactly is loyalty in sports?

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