Is winning everything? (for an athlete)
I’m not much of a basketball fan – correction, I’m not a basketball fan at all – but the heavily-reported saga of Lebron James’ free agency has struck a bit of a chord with me. James is set to announce tomorrow whether he will stay with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers – the only team he’s ever played for – or sign with another team in another city. As a non-fan, I don’t know all of the considerations. Cleveland was a playoff contender last season, so it’s difficult to simplify this as a choice between the losing home team and a winning team elsewhere. My understanding based on a conversation with a friend who does follow the sport is that, in part, James wants to play with certain other players but also that he would have greater playoff chances with another team. The fact that the particulars of the story are not a perfect fit doesn’t change the broad strokes: Do athletes owe their fans anything beyond their best effort while they play for their team?
I might know next to nothing about basketball, but I am a baseball fan. More specifically, I am a lifelong Orioles fan. I apologize up-front for the Orioles-centric take on this entire subject. Any fan of any perennially losing team in any sport will undoubtedly be able to relate even as they will have an entirely different set of stories. Since winning the 1983 World Series (I was 3), my team has had 7 winning seasons… and we are, in dramatic fashion, well on our way to our 19th losing season in that same time period – 13th straight. For me, the starkest reminder that winning teams attract winners came the off-season before last when the Yankees signed free-agent All-Star first-baseman, Mark Teixeira. Teixeira, a Maryland native who grew up following the Orioles, was reportedly offered a competitive contract by his hometown team, and turned it down to sign with a hated divisional rival all because he wanted to play for a winner – a less likely scenario in Baltimore to say the least.
To some extent, the considerations involved can be broadened to any professional field. Certainly, sports are not the only realm in which there is often a complex relationship between loyalty and ambition; staying local and re-locating for a new opportunity. But this becomes even more complicated in the field of athletics. For one thing, there are fans involved; fans that become invested, fans that (for the most part) will keep their allegiance with the team they support rather than having their team allegiance follow the player they have supported. They should at least be included in the equation.
For another, more than in most fields, athletes are absolute competitors. They are accustomed only to quantifiable definitions of success: contracts, stats, wins and losses. Sometimes it all falls into place, and a player (Derek Jeter, for instance) can play for one team and still have the money, the fame, and the rings to show for it. More often, a future superstar is drafted by a Kansas City, a Pittsburgh… a Baltimore, and their choice is either to wait it out until free agency allows them to move on, or content themselves with being an over-performing local fan favorite rarely mentioned on ESPN. Sure, there are good players who choose to re-sign with bad teams. But even then, the stated reason is usually “I believe the team is committed to winning,” and never “win or lose, this is my team. I’ll do my best to help us win, but whatever happens, I’m proud to play for this team in this city and in front of these fans.”
It’s easy to blame free agency for the exodus of good players from bad teams (and I do), but that blame rightly and somewhat disturbingly acknowledges that few players – given a choice – would under any circumstance opt to play for a losing team with few prospects of becoming a winning team. Also, there is a pretty strong (but not absolute) correlation between winning teams and money in the bank for contracts, so it’s often hard to distinguish between a player leaving a losing team based on desire to win versus a player leaving a losing team for a bigger contract.
So, while I’m no fan of free agency and while I would support some kind of baseball revenue sharing and/or salary cap (sorry Mark, I guess I’m something of a sports socialist), I’m not focused on either of those at the moment. Right now, I’m just interested in whether the average athlete would consider winning merely important, or whether they would consider it a necessary outcome for career satisfaction.
It’s not a crazy notion that athletes would hold other, less tangible, measurements for career success: just look at the 2007 Hall of Fame inductees – Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn. Each played 20 or more years with their respective teams and between the two of them they had three World Series appearances and one World Series ring. Out of 41 combined seasons. What’s more, between the two of them, they enjoyed only 17 winning seasons out of those 41. Or, consider this description from The Baltimore Sun of B.J. Surhoff’s emotional state after being traded from a plummeting Baltimore team to the first-place Atlanta Braves in 2000:
He was an emotional wreck before he sat down for the news conference, in tears long before anyone even asked a question. In tears even though he was going from a losing team heading nowhere to a likely division winner possibly headed for the World Series. In tears even though he was escaping a franchise in turmoil for the game’s reigning model of stability and success. In tears because, as hard as it might be for anyone outside the game’s ropes to believe, sometimes there are more important things to a player.
That press conference did as much to cement Surhoff’s place as a Baltimore fan-favorite as had his play on the field. Of course, there’s a counter-argument to be made. Plenty of people enjoy sports precisely because it is one place where records speak for themselves. Sentimentality about loyal play for a losing team is something akin to the oft-maligned “let’s give a trophy to all the kids who played!” phenomenon. Sports, unlike every other part of life in which abstractions cloud the objective, should be clear-cut, made up of winners and losers – and there is no dignity in losing. So goes the argument. I don’t want to get too far out on a sports-as-a-metaphor-for-political-economy argument – there’s been enough of that going around with the World Cup – but for some fans of the game, the mere suggestion that winning really isn’t everything is one short-stop from declaring oneself a Commie and setting out to ruin the entire intent of a given sport.
I don’t know. For me it’s a no-brainer. Players who stick it out and play with either their home team or the team that drafted them regardless of the record are more worthy of respect than players who bolt for greener pastures, no matter how stellar their careers, or even how much character they display off-the-field. I’m always stunned by the level of understanding and rationality fans apply to players. Sure, Teixeira is loudly booed when the Yankees come to Camden Yards, but it’s also common for fans and especially sportswriters to defend his decision: “Can you blame him? Who wouldn’t want to sign a huge contract and play in the World Series almost annually?” This kind of objectivity has no place in my view of team sports; I have no difficulty blaming him, just as I would fully consider it legitimate for Royals fans to hold a special contempt for Johnny Damon, or old Expos fans to feel that way about… well, too many to list. Maybe that’s just easier for me – a non-athlete, and not a particularly competitive person – to believe without complication.
I don’t have even a passing personal interest in where Lebron James plays next season. I’ve never seen him play the game of basketball and regardless of his announcement tomorrow, I feel safe in assuming I never will. Still, I’m really rooting for the fans of Cleveland in James’ decision, hoping that together, they will chalk up a victory for advocates of professional athletes discarding objectivity and putting either their hometown team or their original team (and in this case both) first.