Thursday, December 22, 2011

Why Athletes Can't Afford Loyalty

I watch Bruce Jenner on the Kardashian reality show with appalled sadness. Bruce Jenner once stood as the greatest athlete in the world winning the 1976 Olympic Decathlon. Shaggy haired with an ah shucks attitudes, he stood as an American hero. Now he haunts the  haunts the outskirts of the Kardashian family circus with a face wrecked by too many bad plastic surgeries, a shadow of fading glory. I remember seeing Mickey Mantle selling autographs at a casino. I read of the fate, genetic and otherwise, of the great East German Olympians many cast off by their society just like some of the recent Chinese Olympic champions who live on streets.

Every athlete lives one injury from oblivion. The brilliant Brandon Roy just retired from the Portland Trailblazers, no longer able to play on knees that betrayed him at the age of 27. The Indianapolis Colts and their fans are cold bloodily thinking of passing on their greatest quarterback Peyton Manning because of an injury. Athletes cannot rely upon the loyalty of fans and owners. It took one second in a meaningless late season game to rupture Adrian Peterson's ACL and MCL. In one second his seven year 100 million dollar contract with the Vikings could be compromised even if he recovers since so much of his skill depends upon his explosiveness, one of the consistent casualties of ACL injuries. 

Every athlete will lose their career physically before they are ready emotionally. Too many athletes do not have a backup plan, a degree or altnernative career. When most of us are just launching their careers in late twenties, most athletes are obsolete. With the average pro career 3-5 years, most professional players end on the scrap heap by 27.

Every athlete knows thiseven the ones living in denial.

Athletes also know how utterly fickle and ruthless fans can be. Just go to a basketball game, any level, and watch fans wave and yell and scream for a team or athlete. But the fans mood will shift almost instantaneously. Fans shower down praise,  love and ecstasy, but in a second will boo, scorn or curse the same athlete in the same game. Athletes know that fan loyalty cannot be relied upon; fans want blood and victory, but will settle for blood if they cannot get victory.

Experienced athletes know who we fans are and rightly do not trust us. Just watch the kvetching about Bernie Williams or now Derek Jeter on the downside of magnificent careers with the Yankees. In my hometown fans are turning on Ichiro on the downside of glorious career. Fans do not give unconditional love; it is tightly conditioned. Yet we scream and moan and accuse athletes of being greedy when they leave us.

Albert Pujols just accepted a 250 million dollar ten year contract from the Los Angele Angels, rather than accept a 19 million dollar per year contract with St. Louis for fewer years.  More than a few fans and commentators have excoriated him for not staying with St. Louis his only team. They argue that he grew up in the Cardinals system and should stay with them out of loyalty.  But Pujols helped St. Louis win two world series in five years. His mentor and manager who helped him grow into the star, Tony Russo just retired. What did Pujolis owe the fans? Nothing. He was willing to take a small discount but 5 million per year difference, 20 percent of the St. Louis offer over ten years added up, a lot.  Over the life of the contract it would be worth 50 million dollars or 5 percent of a billion!
We and the St. Louis fans should be glad for him and celebrate his commitment and achievements for the team and the city.

Players cannot and should not trust fans. We forget too easily and remember too long. Fans claim to have loyalty, but the reality is that we do not and turn quickly and viscously upon our heroes. As fans we will forget the journeymen and haunt the retired stars who did not have a safety net at conventions or memorabilia gatherings. The players exist only as amber dipped memories of the fans. We cast off athletes like we cast off almost everyone else. They have no safety net and fans have very short memories. They know the pain of "once I was somebody."

Every professional athlete should be trying to maximize their income. We should not be surprised when they do this. We should not begrudge them seeking to maximize their gain with their very limited economic window of opportunity. We should also realize they understand fans better than we understand ourselves. Our momentary adulation and quicksilver attitude shifts cannot feed their kids or build their homes.

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