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The Myth of Loyalty in Professional Sports

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

 

Marshawn Lynch

In the last few days I’ve had some really interesting conversations about two of our local pro teams, the Seattle Seahawks and Mariners, and the decisions that each are facing. The common theme of these conversations was loyalty. What does loyalty mean to an organization? What does it mean to a player? And perhaps most importantly, what does it mean to a fan of the team? 

Most of us remember vividly the evening of July 8th, 2010, when LeBron James made an unprecedented spectacle of his choice to, “take his talents to south beach.”  Leading up to that night, I don’t recall the press shaming his decision to hold a live, half-hour long, television event to announce where he’d chosen to sign. But in the moments after, The Decision, it quickly became apparent that it was not a move that would increase his popularity with any basketball fan not living in Miami. Fans in Cleveland burned jerseys and cursed his name. They had every right to be angry too. There was no need to slap them across the face on national television. 

But that was more than five years ago. LeBron has since admitted that it was a huge misstep by him to make a big show of his choice to leave, though it’d be hard for anyone to argue that his choice to go to the Miami Heat was a mistake. He won two championship titles in Miami before returning to play in Cleveland. After all of that, he came back to Ohio and took the Cavaliers all the way to the NBA Finals before eventually losing to the Golden State Warriors in six games. Was all forgiven for LeBron? Did the same people who burnt his jersey a few years prior go out and buy a new one? I’m guessing a lot of them did. 

Admittedly, I’m still a little sore about a young shortstop named Alex Rodriguez leaving Seattle for Texas with dollar signs in his eyes. I remember thinking how shitty it was to go to the stupid Rangers for a few million dollars more. In hindsight, that was naive of me. At the very least I can now look back and think to myself, “There are plenty of legitimate reasons to dislike that guy!” 

As fans we really love, our guys.  We want to feel like they care as much about winning a title for our city as we do, and that what drives them to play well is how badly they want to win it for us. We want to believe that if we were in their shoes, making millions of dollars to play a game, we wouldn’t be worried about the difference between $20 million and $25 million a year. And maybe for some players, that’s true, but probably not, and we don’t really know what we’d do. 

So, here’s a little wake-up call. Professional athletes don’t owe you anything. They don’t need to explain their decisions to you. They don’t need you to understand that they have families, and post-athletic careers to consider.  Their career choices are the concern of only those people whose opinions they choose to value. 

The other side of that coin is that the organizations they play for don’t owe them loyalty either. If teams were expected to be loyal to the players they employed, no-trade clauses wouldn’t exist. No player would have to worry about their team doing what was best for the team instead of an individual. But professional sports are first and foremost a business, for the teams and the players. 

That concept seems continually hard to swallow for many fans. The idea that some of our favorite players aren’t untouchable and that somewhere down the line, both parties should, and will, do what’s best for them when given the chance. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but is part of running a successful business. When you have an opportunity to do what’s best for the business, for everyone involved, at the expense of what might be best for one employee, they make that same call 99% of the time. There are always the occasional exceptions, and some arguably against better judgment. 

Last week, the Seahawks played the San Francisco 49ers. Shortly before the game it was announced that Marshawn Lynch wouldn’t be playing in the game, and instead an undrafted rookie, Thomas Rawls, would get the start. Rawls made the most of his opportunity and rushed for over 200 yards, adding handful of receiving yards and two touchdowns as well. 

It wasn’t the first time Rawls has looked like a diamond in the rough either. The rookie ran for 104 yards against the Bears in week three, and 169 against the Bengals in week five. Every game in which Rawls has had double-digit carries, he’s rushed for over 100 yards. He’s currently averaging over six yards per attempt and has done so behind an offensive line that’s been considered by many to be the biggest struggle of the Seahawks season thus far. 

Lynch flew out to Philadelphia early this week to be seen by a specialist for abdominal issues that he’s been playing through, which could certainly explain his lack of production this season. In the next few days, we’ll likely be hearing one of two things. One, Marshawn Lynch has an injury that will sideline him a couple of games.  Two, Marshawn Lynch has an injury that requires surgery and he’ll miss the rest of the season. If Lynch is out for the rest of the year, I think we’ve probably seen his last carry as a Seahawk. That might be a reality that we all have to stomach. His salary and age make him extremely expendable.

Felix Hernandez

The much harder reality, however, is the reality in which Lynch could be ready to get back on the field for the last couple weeks of the season. Having a healthy Marshawn Lynch wouldn’t be a bad thing, but if you have Thomas Rawls juking linebackers out of their shoes and squaring up defensive backs, how many touches do you set aside for Marshawn Lynch? Does he become your third down running back? After all, in many ways, CenturyLink is the house that the Beast built. Is it crazy to suggest that the team so easily turn their backs on recent history and perhaps the most popular Seahawk of all time? I don’t think so. Any organization that wants to win looks forward, not back. And the Seahawks have built their success on being selective about which players they try to keep, and who they let walk away.

On the back of these discussions about loyalty and rookie sensations, a report came out of New York on Monday siting an unnamed source, suggesting Robinson Cano is unhappy in Seattle and would love it if the Mariners would trade him back to the Yankees. Within hours a number of sportswriters were writing that the article in question reeked of bad journalism, had no realistic claims and should be immediately disregarded. The Mariners’ official website even released a statement saying that Cano’s representatives had already reached out to Seattle General Manager, Jerry Dipoto to let him know that none of this came from Cano and that he had no desire to be traded. 

Seemingly, that story is nothing to put stock in at this point and should be disregarded. I bring it up not to add fuel to the speculation, but because it once again brought up the notion of player loyalty. As soon as the story broke, I was getting texts from Mariners fans, (read: buddies of mine) saying, “Screw Cano,” and “What a bum! New York can have him!” 

Forget for a moment the fact that only two short years ago New York essentially waved goodbye to Cano with a smile on their face and a single finger held high. Forget all of that and know that if the reports of Cano’s dissatisfaction were true, the Mariners would still do what was best for the Mariners. 

If a team called tomorrow and offered the Mariners a great package of young, talented players, and said they’d be willing to eat all of the money left on Cano’s contract, the Mariners would likely make that move immediately. Theoretically they’d be adding depth at several different positions, getting worse at second base, and would be freeing up $24 million a year in salary to go sign Jason Heyward or whoever they deemed the best bang for their buck. The Mariners loyalty to Robinson Cano would extend exactly as far his contract stipulated. 

Here’s where it gets personal. 

Some analysts have been whispering from the dark corners of the baseball world that Felix Hernandez showed signs of decline in 2015. His value on paper may have peaked. If that’s true and the King begins to show signs of being human, the whispers will begin to grow louder. There will come a time when he is still under contract and people will once again wonder if the Mariners should trade him. 

As I said earlier, I think an organization will prioritize what’s best for the company over an emotional attachment or a desire of one player 99% of time.

Felix Hernandez is my favorite Mariner. I have a framed ticket stub from his perfect game hanging in my living room. 

I love that he seems like the kind of player who could spend his entire career in Seattle. I love watching other organizations try to copy the King’s Corner.  I love that he elected to sign an extension before ever reaching free agency and I love that he talks about my home town like it’s his. I truly think that Felix is the example of that 1% of the time that you don’t make the business move. It does occasionally happen. 

Once in a generation a player becomes the embodiment of the team they play for with such class and dignity that the team would be hurting its own legacy by tarnishing its pillars. 
Man, I am loyal as hell to Felix Hernandez.  I hope the Mariners never trade him and that he plays his entire career in Seattle. But, I also know that things change, and that the Mariners may not feel like I do. I know that if someday they think he’s more valuable as a trade chip than he is on the mound, they’ll pull his card. 

Loyalty is part of what makes us connect with our teams, with the athletes that play for them. We need to believe in it to find meaning in our favorite sports. If someone betrays that loyalty, we can forgive them rationally, but emotionally, we never will.

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.

 

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