Earlier this week, Kevin Durant set the sports world on fire when he bolted from the Oklahoma City Thunder for the greener (or golder) pastures of the Golden State Warriors. Somehow, Durant also must have set the personal houses of several people I know on fire given the vitriolic responses of people who are completely unaffected by the decision.
My Facebook feed was filled with personal friends from all over the country who were upset at Kevin Durant. They are Cavs fans and Pacers fans. They are Magic fans and Sixers fans. The vast majority of them don't even root for a team in the West, but you wouldn't know it by their response. You'd have thought Durant stole their spouse on his way to the Bay. With profane tirades and even hopes he injures himself, I was surprised at how visceral the reactions. People felt real emotion about a player leaving.
It occurred to me that this is a normal thing among fans. While I've never seen a physical copy, it's understood that everyone has read a secret book filled with all good and well rules of sportsmanship. Durant, however, has never read this book or at least skipped over the all-important chapter on Loyalty. At least, that's how he is behaving.
Even worse, the responses of my own friends are nothing compared to this guy:
Loyalty is a funny notion when you think about it, a product for sports talk radio and water cool conversations. A young man, who is an incredible physical specimen, reaches his late teens or early 20s and is selected by a franchise. It is a business within a business, with an owner, CEO, president and all kinds of titles that make this person an employee of said business. This teenager is typically contractually obligated to play only for this team for several years or lose the chance to play their given sport professionally anywhere else.
In no other arena that major team sports do you have this notion that an employee should remain in a particular place for the sake of team loyalty. You and I have likely never declined a major payday for the sake of remaining in a particular cubicle. "I'm sorry, but I have to refuse your offer. I've been on the fifth floor for the last decade, and I just want to make sure I finish my career here."
When we watch a team play, we become attached to the players on that team. It's understandable that fans want the best players to want to play for their favorite team. It's also understandable to be frustrated when a player leaves your team. But there is a distance that should remain in place — an arm's length or so that would keep us from becoming so emotionally charged when a player does what is best for him.
That is actually what these players are doing. NBA players will likely, on the whole, enjoy a much better quality of life after playing professionally than other sports, but they too sacrifice their God-given knees and ankles, joints and ligaments for the sake of entertainment. They have a limited window to cash gargantuan checks. Why should a person not do everything he or she can to make sure those checks are as big as possible? And if a player has earned considerable amounts of money and the right to move freely within their chosen sport, why should they also not enjoy the chance to be successful on the court?
Remember that moment? If you were a Chiefs fan in the spring of '97, you'll likely remember this as one of the most emotional moments for a Chiefs fan in a generation — the loss of Pro Bowl defensive lineman Neil Smith to the Denver Broncos. Once again, the vitriol and anger spewed was very real as fans felt hurt that Smith would sign with the team's hated rivals. With John Elway under center, the Broncos would earn two Super Bowl rings in Smith's three-year tenure with the team.
These days, Smith says he would take it all back — every bit of his playing career — to not deal with the loss of memory, the aches and pains that plague his post-NFL life. The achievements. The Super Bowl wins. The fanfare. That's a lot to throw away for a player with a legitimate NFL legacy. It's a sign that we often don't know what we're talking about as fans when we say that a player should do this or that, as if we have as much stake in the game as they do, as if we're considering the options as much as they are.
Here's what I know: I felt no joy watching Sean Smith sign with the Oakland Raiders this offseason. I also felt no anger. Compared to other cornerbacks, Smith has been among the NFL's top defensive bargains since John Dorsey signed him to a cheap three-year deal that expired this spring. It's understandable that he would take the money from the coffers of one of the league's most loaded (financially) teams. Smith was certainly not poor before this offseason, but someday soon we will discuss Sean Smith's career in the past tense. He needs to grab the cash while he can.
No matter how big the spotlight, even one Durant-sized, a person has to make his or her own decisions without worry or fear of what others might do in response. The fact that there could even be such a response show just how much we buy into the lie of loyalty.