Feinstein: Athletes Owe Fans Effort, Not Everlasting Loyalty

Professional athletes don't owe franchises hometown discounts, John Feinstein says, and fans who boo them should be ashamed

John Feinstein
December 03, 2019 - 9:05 am
Bryce Harper Nationals

USA Today Images


On the night before Thanksgiving, the Brooklyn Nets traveled to Boston for a game against the Celtics. Kyrie Irving, who left Boston this offseason to sign as a free agent with the Nets, didn’t make the trip—missing his seventh straight game with a shoulder impingement.
That didn’t stop Boston fans from directing profane chants at him—even though he wasn’t in the building—and booing the Nets, apparently for being his teammates, every chance they got.
In the minds of Celtics fans, Irving had betrayed them and the entire city by initially saying he planned to stay in Boston and then choosing to leave. Apparently, he OWED it to the team and the city to stay, regardless of whether he thought it was the best thing for him, his career and his family.
You OWE us.
That’s a constant theme in sports. John Tavares played for the New York Islanders for nine seasons, often the one bright spot on bad teams controlled by dysfunctional ownership. In 2016, he played a key role when the team finally broke a 23-year drought by winning a playoff series. He became one of the best players in hockey and never once complained about the team’s lousy leadership.
He became a free agent in the summer of 2018 and signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team he’d grown up rooting for, believing he had a chance to go home to be part of a team that was building towards something special.
I’ve been a fan of the Islanders since their first season (when they went 12-60-6) and was extremely disappointed when Tavares chose to leave. But I understood it and respected his right to make the move.
Apparently, most Islander fans didn’t agree with me. When the Maple Leafs came to the Island last season, Tavares was booed un-mercifully every time he touched the puck or his name was announced. I was actually happy when he scored the winning goal in the Leafs final appearance in front of those fans last season. He deserved it. So did the fans.
The same thing happened to Bryce Harper in Washington this past baseball season. He was booed non-stop whenever he came to bat for the Phillies, the team he had signed with as a free agent. The Phillies offered more years and more upfront money—as in non-deferred—than the Nationals did. Harper’s agent is Scott Boras, who always takes the most money offered.
Harper played in Washington for seven seasons. He was an MVP one year and played a key role in Washington making the postseason four times in seven years.
Harper was treated the same way Tavares was treated on Long Island.
My question is this: what exactly does an athlete do wrong when, as the collective bargaining agreement allows, he decides to change teams because he can make more money or because he believes he will be happier with another team or in another city? Is it laughable when athletes sometimes say, “It wasn’t about the money?” Sure. Because to one degree or another, it’s always about the money.
Great players—like Irving, Tavares and Harper—make huge money, but they only make it for a relatively short period of time. With very few exceptions, all will have to find a new life at the age of 40—if not sooner. So why begrudge them the chance to do what they feel is best for them?
Are fans going to insist that a team owner continue to pay a player top dollar when he’s no longer a star? New York Giants fans will cheer Eli Manning lustily at the end of this season, but they sure as heck aren’t happy that the Giants kept Manning around at a $23 million salary this season. They’ll thank him for the memories—and the two Super Bowl wins—and say, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Now, is Daniel Jones our answer at quarterback?”
That’s the way it is in jock world. It was former Ohio State coach John Cooper, who, as he accepted the Rose Bowl trophy on New Year’s Day in 1997 said, “I’d like to thank our fans who are always with us—win or tie.”
There are no ties in college football anymore, but Cooper was making a point. Most fans are loyal to players as long as they are successful. Once they stop helping their team win, they want them gone. Next man up.
In 2017, when I was researching my book on playing quarterback in the NFL, one of the players I worked closely with was Joe Flacco. Flacco had won a Super Bowl in Baltimore and had taken the Ravens to the postseason in six of his first seven seasons—becoming the first NFL quarterback to start and win at least one playoff game six times in his first seven years in the league.
But the Ravens had missed postseason in 2015 and 2016. After a 26-9 loss to the Steelers dropped their record to 2-2 to start 2017, a reporter asked Flacco to assess his play that day.
“I sucked,” Flacco said. “I’m the quarterback, I make the most money, I’m the one responsible when the offense doesn’t produce. It’s on me.”
Sitting there, I thought back to several dropped passes during the game—the Ravens receiving corps that season was awful—but respected the fact that Flacco willingly took the blame.
An hour or so later, I got into my car and turned on a postgame radio show. The host, an old friend of mine named Keith Mills, had just gone to the phones. The first caller opened with this: “Keith, when is Joe Flacco going to step up and take responsibility for the failings of this offense?”
Mills laughed. “He said he sucked today,” he said finally. “What more do you want from him?”
That’s sort of the point. Fans always want more from “their” players. But it isn’t just about production, it’s about absolute loyalty. They expect it from the players—and coaches—even if they don’t deliver it in return. Or, as Bob Knight once said to me years ago, “I understand that as long as I win, Indiana fans will say I’m eccentric. If I ever stop winning, they’ll say I’m an embarrassment.”
The media can be guilty, too. When Albert Pujols returned to St. Louis this past season for the first time since leaving to play in Anaheim seven years ago, he was cheered every time he stepped to the plate. He was cheered when he hit a home run. Because time had passed and because St. Louis fans are about as good as it gets and because they remembered the two World Series titles he had helped deliver, they were willing to cheer him early and often.
Some in the baseball media were outraged. The Cardinals were trying to win a division title. How could fans cheer an opponent like that? Once, okay fine. But all weekend?
Personally, I think the fans in St. Louis got it right. Like Irving, Tavares and Harper, Pujols had left as a free agent when his contract said he could leave. He had given all that he could and then had taken the 10-year contract offered by the Angels.
The fact that Irving, Tavares and Harper didn’t deliver titles didn’t mean they hadn’t given all they had to give—especially in the cases of the latter two; Irving was only in Boston for two seasons and the championship he helped deliver was in Cleveland.
But the anger directed at all three—and at other athletes who have left teams as free agents—is, to me, depressing.
Sports can bring out the best in us, but at times it brings out the worst in us. I still vividly remember the social media posts that came out of Boston in 2012 when Joel Ward of the Washington Capitals, who is black, scored an overtime goal in game 7 of a Stanley Cup playoff series. The venom that came out was disgusting. It may have been a minority, but it wasn’t just one or two people acting like racist morons. Sadly, it was considerably more than that.
What people don’t understand is this: Athletes owe them their best effort while they play for their team. But that’s it. They don’t owe them hometown discounts to stick around, and they certainly don’t owe management anything beyond that. We all know that 99 percent of the time when an athlete begins to fade, management begins to look for his replacement. I don’t blame them for that—professional sports is a big-bucks business.
But please don’t tell me someone is a bad guy because he chooses to play somewhere else. Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and Joe Namath have what in common?
They all ended their careers in places other than where they became stars and won championships. Why? Because management had someone younger (and no doubt cheaper) ready to take their place. That’s how it works.
The fans who boo ex-players when they return with another team should be ashamed of themselves. The real shame of it is that they will never understand that.
John Feinstein’s newest book is, “Benchwarmers,” the story of an 11-year-old girl who wants to play on a boys sixth-grade soccer team but has to deal with a misogynist coach and a number of her teammates in order to get on the field. His book, “The Prodigy,” the story of a 17-year-old who has a chance to win the Masters but must fight off agents, equipment reps and his own father, all of whom want to turn him into a human ATM machine, is now out in paperback. His most recent non-fiction, “Quarterback,--Inside the Most Important Position in Professional Sports,” is also out in paperback and his new book, “The Back Roads to March,” will be out in March just in time for the NCAA tournament. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com