Friday, July 16, 2010

The business of loyalty

I had to give it a week. It needed to settle, to stew and ferment in my mind. At this point I have heard every point of view possible and the conclusion is simple yet complex. The end result is completely understandable yet shockingly surprising. If it were me, I would have gone to Chicago but I get it. I get bringing his talents to South Beach. LeBron James just wants to have fun.

This is not about the LeBronathon documentary variety show that aired. To tell you the truth, I did not actually get to see it even though I totally would have watched the entire thing. My information is all from the response it got and the parodies it spurred. But my opinions here are not going to be based on 'The Decision.' They are simply going to be based on his decision.

I would have chosen Chicago. He would seem to 'fit' better with that team, but that is really the only reason I would have chosen the Bulls. My second choice would have then been the Heat. Those two teams give him the best chance to win a title. Yet on the Heat, he gets to play with his friends, play in the city of Miami, and play for Pat Riley. So I get it. It is definitely a sound business and sports decision. It seems to me, the dumbest decision he could have made would've been returning to Cleveland.

Aren't sports a business? Where is loyalty rewarded in sports? Why SHOULD it be? Loyalty is bad for business. And if you think I'm being sarcastic here, I am not. In a few months, the Yankees, my favorite baseball team, are going to pay Derek Jeter a lot of money to stay a few more years and retire as a Yankee. They have to. If they don't, the city will riot. People will burn Wall Street and knock down the Brooklyn Bridge. Children will be used as ammunition in an attack on the United Nations building. Mothers and fathers will use their life savings to purchase grenades to launch at oncoming traffic. It will get ugly. My problem is I don't understand why it will get ugly. Sure Jeter is a great player for a great franchise, but why do I care if he plays for someone else? Isn't that up to him? If HE decides to spurn the Yankees and sign elsewhere, why should I be any more loyal? I don't get the fascination fans have with specific players. I wrote about this in a previous column a couple months ago. Aren't players just assets your favorite team buys to try to win titles for your city? The Yankees are an organization, a well run business, that purchases contracts of workers to reach their goal for the end of the fiscal year, which in this case is in October (sometimes November.) There is not a single player on any of "my" teams that I would want to keep over someone who is more talented.

The discrepancy is that fans are hypocrites. Loyalty only exists in the minds of fans when the player in question is really, ridiculously good. No one was burning jerseys or lining the streets in San Antonio to protest when Richard Jefferson opted out of his current deal. They were actually happy to see him go. Where's the loyalty there? He opted out in the attempt to get more money over more years, and if he could return to the Spurs, then fine. Neither side was bent out of shape about him leaving because it was a business move, but more because he isn't an all-star player. Fan loyalty is more condition dependent than a health insurance policy.

Johnny Damon left the Red Sox to join the Yankees after helping Boston to a World Series title. He disgraced the city and all the fans. Or the Red Sox disgraced the city and the fans by low-balling their offer to Damon and forcing him to move on. It was one of those. Or maybe it actually was common sense where the Sox felt Damon wasn't worth the contract he desired because he was getting old, and the Yankees wanted to take the chance on him, feeling the money involved was worth the risk. When Damon left Oakland as a free agent after getting dealt the year before from the Royals, he decided to join the Red Sox. No one cared. There was no loyalty oath broken from either organization since Damon was no MVP candidate and neither club was in contention. Perhaps he went to the Sox for money, but people decided it was also allowed because he would have a better chance to win there. Yet LeBron didn't get the same allowance.

LeBron, whether it turns out true or not, chose winning over money. Technically returning to the city of Cleveland would have been choosing money over winning: the ultimate no-no in sports fandom. Whatever an athlete does, whether it be drunk driving, eliciting a prostitute, or gambling away charity money playing craps, fans always forgive or forget. But when an athlete chooses to take the most money rather than go to a team with a better chance to win the title, fans are revolted. Yet this is the decision LeBron James made. He took less money to go to Miami, a more talented team with a much better chance to win the NBA championship.

How fickle fans have become. I think I understand though. I think I'm finally getting sports loyalty. It's convenience loyalty. Sure I'll stand up for a friend, if he's fighting someone smaller than me. Sure I'll pay for your lunch since you forgot your wallet, if it's less than $20. Sure you can borrow my car, if I have previously driven with you and know you aren't insane on the road. We have the same convenience loyalty rules in the 'real world.' The difference is, there are not others viewing our decisions, with the outcomes being judged and ridiculed.

LeBron James chose to leave one place for a much, much better place with better weather, more friends, a better team, better leader, and a much better chance to win. Put another way, he made the choice that all of us would have also made. What a selfish jerk. Doesn't he have any loyalty? Oh yeah though, I almost forgot, if in six years, he's gained 55 pounds and torn both knee ligaments, the Heat better release him. You can't be loyal to a bad player. It isn't good for business.

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