Loyalty in sports is like honesty in politicsby J.W. Miller on 07/23/18
Earlier this week, NBA star Dwyane Wade complained that there was no “loyalty” in sports. Wade’s comment came during his criticism of Toronto’s trade of star Demar DeRozan to San Antonio for all-star Kawhi Leonard. Said Wade: “DeRozan gave everything to Toronto, everything they asked him to do from the standpoint of loyalty. That’s why I hate loyalty and sports, those two words … shouldn’t go together. He committed to them. It’s a business and you understand the business, but from a player standpoint it just sucks.”
One could ask Wade about the loyalty of a player who leaves a team he has been with for years for another team, but the bigger question is this: does loyalty exist in sports? What is loyalty? Is it always a one-way street or can both sides display loyalty? My opinion is that loyalty in sports is like honesty in politics. You might see examples of it on occasion, but it is not the thread that binds the institution together.
If you are of my era, you probably see “loyalty” in athletics differently than Dwyane Wade. Are you old enough to remember a time when players would stay with the same club for their entire career? Bill Russell was a lifelong Celtic. Ted Williams was a Red Sox, Mickey Mantle a Yankee, Ernie Banks a Cub, Stan Musial a Cardinal, the list goes on. Having a star or two who you could cheer for year in and year out was great! So does that mean those players were loyal to their clubs? Don’t delude yourself. If Russell, Williams or the others had played in an environment of free agency, their careers would have taken a radically different direction.
Free agency redefined loyalty to the length of the player’s current contract. Teams trade players, buy players, rent players and cut players regularly, all in the name of winning. Let’s clarify one thing. Sports has always been a business to the moguls who run it. I’ve done a lot of research into early professional sports – primarily baseball – and if you want examples of some hard-bitten owners, just read about the poltroons who owned baseball teams in the early years. Players complained that owners were robbing them with modest salaries, while owners complained that the players were just a pack of greedy scoundrels who overvalued their own worth. Some, like Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, sold his best player for cash to support a Broadway play he was producing, and Babe Ruth lasted a lot longer on Broadway than Frazee’s play.
College athletics don’t exhibit any more examples of loyalty than the pros. Universities fire coaches who don’t build and maintain athletic programs that inspire boosters and sell tickets. Student-athletes cast their lot with an institution until the first chance they get to declare themselves eligible for the draft or can transfer to another school. And the dance goes on.
So what is loyalty? Is it when a player wants to stay with a team and might take a lower salary to make it happen? Is it when a team wants to keep the player and will pay more than it wanted to do so? Drew Brees and the Saints might be good examples of mutual loyalty, and you can probably identify others. Hopefully, Anthony Davis will be another example when he becomes eligible for a new, max deal. But don’t bet the mortgage payment on it.
There is one component of sports in which true loyalty does exist. That’s from the fans. Saints fans grumbled and wore bags for the first 19 years of the organization’s existence, and many stopped coming to games. But a core of Who Dats were steadfast. They loved the Saints, sometimes hated the Saints, but they never updated their black and gold wardrobes. The most prevalent example of loyalty that exists in sports today is the fan, and don’t be fooled into thinking otherwise.