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On Professional Athletes & Sports Fans’ Expectations

Within the last 48 hours, I’ve had two of the biggest names for two of my favorite teams come out and demand a move to a new team.  First, Eric Gordon, the Hornets’ All-Star shooting guard, found a team willing to pay him the maximum amount of money he can get – in this case, the Phoenix Suns. Then today, Robin van Persie, Arsenal FC’s striker and captain, released a statement in which he says he will not sign a new contract – in effect, trying to force the hand of the club into selling him or risk losing him for nothing in 12 months’ time.

Eric GordonThe natural response by the fans was immediate: recriminations against each of the athletes, insults through Twitter and other social media, anger, frustration and lots of venting against each of the players, the teams/clubs and other fans with “differing” opinions.  It’s getting to the point that when it happens, you can be certain to predict the steps in this dance.  All of it eventually culminates in a “good riddance” sense from fans towards the players and a final charge of “mercenary” or “only in it for the money.”

Which, in a sense, is laughable since they are, after all, professional athletes.  This is their job.

Eric Gordon hasn’t been a lifelong fan of the Hornets.  In fact, I’m sure he wasn’t – growing up in the Midwest during the 90s, it’s more likely that he followed Jordan’s Bulls.  Same with van Persie, who grew up in the Netherlands and not in London.  The idea that they somehow should have the same level of dedication or devotion to the team is absurd.  They don’t know the ups-and-downs of the teams.  They didn’t celebrate the victories or feel the defeats.  To them, the team or the club is their employer.

Let’s also remember that athletes live a weird life.  They are celebrated for their athletic skills and accomplishments.  They are excused their failures, protected by interested parents, coaches, teachers, friends and agents and allowed to move upwards towards wealth and fame.  They get adulation and adoration from fans who cheer on their exploits and defend their mistakes – see “Terry, John” or “Artest, Ron” – from fans of other teams who are eager to point out their flaws.  They are constantly told, “all you have to do is continue accomplishing on the field/the pitch/the court/the ice/the diamond and we will reward you.”

The key in all of that is that the career of a professional athlete is a short one.  Professional golfers and baseball players may play into their early 40s, but for most athletes, the window to make money is one of 10 years.  By the time they hit their early 30s, athletes are on the downswing of their careers; brought low by injuries which ravage tendons, bones, muscles and brains.  Injuries which they will continue to suffer from long after they have been replaced by their teams or clubs with new, young, eager athletes to take their place.

Robin van PersieThat is the deal with the devil that any professional athlete makes: you got 10-15 years to make as much money as you can.  Then, unless you are that rare specimen (like Brett Favre or Jamie Moyer) you will be set aside.  If you’re lucky, you will find a career in the sport to which you’ve dedicated your whole life: either as a trainer, coach or manager or as a professional pundit.  If not, you get to ride into the sunset of a long life, with no other discernible skills and a long life in which to drain from the pool of money you built in your 20s.  A pool of money, by the way, that everyone knows you have and that many are desperate to take.  Not surprisingly, the tales of former athletes who end up bankrupt and destitute is long and unpleasant.

Gerry Valliancourt, the longtime voice of the Hornets in New Orleans, has a saying “fans are the mutts of the sports world.”  In other words, they are never thought of or considered by the teams or the players outside of their desire to keep them supporting the team and the players.  But the fact is that we, as fans and supporters, do not care about players.  We chide them for making millions “to play a kids’ game”.  We demand they perform for us through pain and injury.  We expect them to sacrifice all they can for our entertainment.   Why should they care for our feelings when, the moment they are not on our team, we won’t care about theirs?

Look, this isn’t a screed to get you to ignore the actions of professional athletes when they behave foolishly or boorishly.  By all means, ridicule Brett Favre for texting his junk or John Terry for being a racist cunt.  But don’t forget that they are human and will behave as much in their benefit as anyone else.  They want to earn millions like we all do.  To them, this is their job.  And just as you would move to another company for double your salary, so would they.

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