In sports, there’s a set of principles based on much-lauded concepts of honor, honesty, valor and loyalty. In recent years, this code of sport has been altered and attuned to fit the brand strategy of professional athletes and to increase profits and revenue shares for franchise owners. Teams no longer mask their intent to upgrade their rosters to attain a championship–no matter the causalities or cost. And players–post-LeBron James’ “Decision”–have come to the realization that they are power players in determining the success or downfall of an organization.
When tradition collides with expedience, which seems to be the case every day in sports now, tradition usually loses out. Loyalty is usually defined as teams owing something to players and players returning that in kind. But with ticket prices ratcheting up higher every season, the truest loyalty may be owed by a franchise to the fans to field the best possible team, no matter what legends or future superstars are traded away. Professional sports, after all, is a business and loyalty is more than a two-way street.
Case in point: the recent Denver Broncos-New York Jets fiasco. After resurrecting the Broncos’ season and leading them to a post-season victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tim Tebow was viewed by many in Denver as their savior, but not to John Elway. The Broncos’ executive vice president of football operations made the popular but polarizing quarterback expendable and later sent him packing to the New York Jets, after the Broncos signed future-Hall of Fame QB Peyton Manning to a five-year, $96 million deal. Although Tebow’s run-first style of play created controversy in the sports world, his will to win, coupled with his faith in God, generated a cult-like following across the U.S. Now, Mark Sanchez must deal with the pressure of having Tebowmania debut on Broadway. Strangely, the Jets appeared to show their faith-–and loyalty–-in Sanchez when they re-signed him to a three-year contract extension worth $40.5 million. But with the acquisition of Tebow, which QB will the Jets have the most loyalty to? Rex Ryan and company stated that Sanchez will be their starting quarterback, but we all know once Mark throws his first pick, the fans and New York media will be ferociously chanting for Tebow to check in. It’s clear the Jets loyalty is to selling as many jerseys as possible and competing against the Giants, Yankees and the Knicks as the Big Apple’s main attraction. But will it cost them their team’s chemistry?
Where is loyalty in sports today? There is none. Survival of the fittest is the best phrase to describe sports today. For example, after winning five NBA titles in two stints with the Lakers, 16-year NBA veteran Derek Fisher would have loved to retire in L.A. Instead, the Lakers sent him packing for Houston last month for Ramon Sessions, a faster and younger point guard to help them compete for a title down the stretch. The same can be said about the Pittsburgh Steelers releasing long time wide receiver Hines Ward, after 14 seasons and last January’s disappointing loss to the Broncos in the playoffs.
Players’ loyalty to organizations is also uncertain, as we witnessed in the NBA with James and Carmelo Anthony’s departure from Denver. The latest act has come from Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard. Howard, à la James, strategically positioned himself to be the talk of next summer, by choosing to stay with the Orlando Magic until the end of 2013. Brett Favre pulled a similar trick in Green Bay, New York and finally in Minnesota. It’s easy to forgive athletes and attribute their actions to different intentions, but we should always remember that athletes enjoy fattening their wallets–and the fame that comes with it–and some don’t care about his team, local community, the future of the franchise, or his teammates. By agreeing to a one-year extension with the Magic, Howard did not demonstrate loyalty to the franchise or to the city of Orlando. It was a way for him to further ponder his next move.
In a rare show of loyalty these days, Oklahoma City superstar Kevin Durant signed a five-year extension with the Thunder, guaranteeing the fans and the organization that he’s dedicated and committed to bring a winning culture to the city. The reigning NBA scoring leader is signed with the Thunder through next season under his original rookie contract, which would pay him about $5 million next year.
What’s next? In the “Woodsinity” era, the Knicks are 9-1 since Mike Woodson took over as interim head coach after Mike D’Antoni resigned. Over the weekend it was announced that Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin would undergo season-ending surgery to repair a torn meniscus in left knee. Lin will be a free agent after the season and hopes to return to New York, but will the Knicks make the inconceivable call–and very unpopular basketball decision–-like John Elway and the Broncos, and not resign Linsanity in the off-season? Or will Lin remain loyal to the organization that gave him his final shot in the NBA?