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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Debunking the myth of Free Agency and Fan Loyalty

It seems a popular topic today in the sports world is how free agency has changed the landscape of professional sports.  Of course, the term free agent (in the most literal use of the word) almost seems oxymoronic, because the teams that ultimately land the services of these "free agents" often do so at a very hefty price, many times in the tens of millions of dollars.  That, however, is a topic for another discussion in itself.  The bigger question is whether any said free agent owes a loyalty to a particular franchise or city, and, if so, what reparations are owed that franchise should he decide to leave town.

The idea that any professional athlete owes a particular team or city a degree of loyalty is something that has been brainwashed into the heads of many fans today.  Over the years fans have seen numerous athletes such as Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, Magic Johnson, Cal Ripken, and Barry Larkin play for one team their entire professional career(s).  And there are a select few athletes today, such as Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady, just to name a couple, who have spent their entire career with a single franchise.  These aforementioned athletes were not only good, but in most cases great, and along the way they helped bring one or more championship(s) to the franchises and cities they played for.

The accolades that these individuals brought to their respective franchises(and by extension, the cities that hosted these franchises), however, were not the only reason fans bought into the concept of player loyalty.  The main reason that fans became so attached to these athletes was that each player at some point made it known, either directly or indirectly, that they could never see themselves playing for another team, in another city. Ever.  And thus the idea that a superstar athlete owed loyalty to a particular city or franchise was born.

Many fans nowadays also want to buy into the idea that professional athletes care about winning championships for their city.  This, too, is a myth that has perpetuated professional sports for years.  Certainly there are those athletes that care about championship rings.  Some of them actually end up winning them. Some don't.  But for the majority of professional athletes, it is all about earning a paycheck.  This of course, seems unthinkable to the average fan, who believes that an athlete who does something he loves should want to be the best.  The reality of the situation is that athletes are just like everyone else, working a job that they happen to be good at, and trying to make a living.  So they perform well enough to continue to earn a paycheck, but they don't lose sleep if they never win it all.

So, if athletes are just like the rest of us, going to work everyday to earn a paycheck, shouldn't they be allowed to choose where they want to work like the rest of us?  Many would argue that because they are being paid millions of dollars they owe their original franchise a degree of loyalty.  However, if someone who makes $25,000 dollars working for one corporation is suddenly offered double that to work for another, should he turn that offer down?  What if the employee had been working for the first corporation for more than 10 years?  The average fan sees the athlete who turns down 2 million dollars in order to make $5 million dollars a year as greedy.  But what the average fan does not comprehend is that with the higher salary comes a different lifestyle.  And the athlete must do whatever necessary to support that lifestyle, even if it means leaving a team every couple of years.

In the end, a professional sports' team is just another business,  trying to make a profit like the myriad of other entrepreneurs and corporations out there.  And when the average fan finally realizes that, maybe then they will be easier to forgive athletes who leave their cities.

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