What Do Athletes Owe Their Fans?

I promise this is the last LeBron article, and we will get back to football soon. Watching last night made me reexamine the relationship between fans and athletes, though. I’d like to talk about the bond for a bit.

Sports are business. There’s no such thing as loyalty. Although we may not like to admit it, this makes sense. Athletes have short careers. They need to try and maximize their income while they can. We do the same thing. If somebody offered you a better job for more pay in a different city, you would probably take it. You wouldn’t have loyalty to your company. Your current employer wouldn’t have any reservations about dumping you if you became a liability on their balance sheet no matter how much good work you’ve done in the past. It’s the same way for athletes. They are only one knee injury away from being useless to their teams.

This is why I tend to take the side of athletes in contract disputes. Loyalty is a two way street. Athletes are expected to give it, but fans don’t hold teams as accountable. I think there are limits, though.

I might leave my job, but I also don’t have millions of people living and dying with what I do at work. Athletes do. There are certain guys we so identify with that we identify with them. They become part of our family.

When I relate this to the Jets, I think of a kid from Long Island who was too short and slow to play in the NFL. He only got a tryout as a courtesy to his college, where the Jets trained. He ended up capturing the hearts of a fan base and became one of the most productive players in team history. He might be the most beloved player ever to don a Jets uniform.

Now imagine Wayne Chrebet was as important to this team on the field as Peyton Manning is to the Colts. Then imagine he left as a free agent for greener pastures. That’s what Cleveland fans are going through right now.

Brett Favre used to be my favorite player in the NFL. I can’t tell you how pumped I was when he came to the Jets. Even though his one season in green and white didn’t work out as I had hoped, I still had admiration for the guy. He did his best and fought through injuries. Then he signed with Minnesota. The man is scum to me now.He was a God in Green Bay. Fans there worshiped him. There was no reason for him to sign with a bitter rival and hurt all of those people who had given him so much love through the years. He could have come back to the Jets or gone to the UFL or CFL if he wanted to play so badly. It was a heartless thing to do.

Charles Barkley once said athletes should not serve as role models. I think he is right. Whether they should or not, though, is irrelevant. It may not be right, but they are role models. Kids look up to them in the public eye. Very few athletes develop a deep emotional bond with their fans, but those who do cannot pretend they have no responsibility. It might not be completely fair. It’s part of the price of being so beloved. They don’t get a pass when management treats them poorly.

Even though he likely would have ended up on my Yankees, I was really happy to see Joe Mauer sign a long term deal with the Twins. It was the right thing to do. He gets it. He understands how special a homegrown superstar’s bond is with his fans. Kevin Garnett wasted the prime of his career on terrible teams in Minnesota because of incompetent management. Nobody could have blamed him for asking out five years before he escaped, but he kept playing hard. It made him that much easier to root for when he finally escaped to Boston. Ray Boroque and the Boston Bruins presented a similar situation. Yes, he left, but it was on good terms. The city of Boston lit up the ratings during the 2001 Stanley Cup Finals to root for him to win the Stanley Cup.

Last night LeBron James told his home city he didn’t care about them. It was the equivalent of a woman you like renting out a stadium scoreboard with the message, "Let’s just be friends." People like Dwight Howard and J.A. Adande who said Cleveland fans shouldn’t be angry would probably tell Elin Woods she shouldn’t be angry because of the early years of her marriage. I said yesterday I didn’t blame LeBron for leaving because his front office gave him a terrible supporting cast. I changed my mind once I saw the faces on Cleveland fans.

This is usually the kind of thing we would praise. How many players in professional sports take less money to win and potentially make themselves immortal? It’s impossible to celebrate, though, because of the way a city was punched in the gut.

Millions of children in Ohio cried themselves to sleep last night. If that doesn’t make LeBron James scum, I don’t know what does. Wayne Chrebet never would have done that.

What do you think athletes owe us?

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