Feinstein: Fans, Media Often Unfair To Athletes

Too many people dismiss athletes as "greedy," John Feinstein says, and they – fans and media – often lack class in the process

John Feinstein
March 05, 2019 - 9:17 am
Bryce Harper Philadelphia Phillies MLB Spring Training

USA Today Images


Last Thursday night, John Tavares returned to Long Island for the first time since leaving the Islanders as a free agent to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs—his boyhood team.
Tavares played for the Islanders for nine years and grew into one of the best players in the National Hockey League. His decision to leave clearly wasn’t an easy one. The Maple Leafs offered him $77 million for seven years, the chance to play with one of the better young teams in the NHL and, perhaps most important, the opportunity to star in the city where he grew up.
The Islanders might have offered him one more year at about the same money, but they have been a franchise in flux for most of the last 30 years. In fact, they have essentially been without a home since a foolish decision to move to Brooklyn, choosing to play in a building ill-suited for hockey a long way from much of its fan base.
Now, the team has admitted the mistake and will finally have a new home—in 2021. For now, they are splitting time between the not-for-hockey Barclays Center and the beloved but outmoded Nassau Coliseum.
The Islanders put together a pre-game video tribute for Tavares, to thank him for the nine years during which he almost single-handedly kept the team respectable. Almost as soon as the tribute began many—most?—fans began booing. The rationale was that Tavares should have let Islanders management know he planned to leave last year before the trade deadline so they could get something in return for him.
Perhaps. Or perhaps he wasn’t sure about leaving at that point; not certain what kind of offer the Leafs would make or how the Islanders would change once new owner John Ledecky took over.
It DID change. Ledecky finally fired Garth Snow as the general manager and hired a proven winner in Lou Lamoriello. When Barry Trotz got into a contract dispute with the Washington Capitals after winning the Stanley Cup, it took about 15 minutes for Lamoriello to hire him as coach.
If all that had happened a year earlier, Tavares might still be an Islander. But it didn’t. The wheels were already in motion by the time Lamoriello and Trotz came on board, and the Leafs made Tavares an offer he didn’t feel he could refuse.
Islander fans felt betrayed. I say this as someone who has been an Islander fan since the franchise played its first game (a 3-2 loss to fellow expansion team Atlanta, and I didn’t have to look the score up) and reveled in the four Stanley Cups and the remarkable run from the mid-'70s until 1993, when the team upset the two-time Cup champion Penguins to reach the Eastern Conference finals.
I’ve written in the past about what a joy it was for me to cover those teams as a young Washington Post reporter, not so much because I was a fan, but because it was such a terrific locker room.
The last 25 years have been, for the most part, a nightmare. An owner who turned out to be a fraud; Mike Milbury and Snow—two of the worst general managers in any sport. In 16 of the last 24 seasons, the Islanders have failed to reach the playoffs. They ended a 22-season drought, during which the team failed to win one playoff SERIES, by beating the Florida Panthers in 2016. The goal that clinched that series was scored by Tavares.
If I had been in Nassau Coliseum last Thursday as a fan, I would have stood and applauded Tavares. I would have been in a distinct minority. I also would not have taken part in the "We don’t need you” chant during the Islanders' 6-1 win. I would have enjoyed the victory, but would not have risked angering the hockey gods with that chant.
Those gods were clearly listening that night because the Islanders scored TWO goals in their next two games (both at home) in critical losses to the Capitals and Flyers. The team has played much better than anyone expected for most of this season—thanks in large part to being run—finally—by hockey pros Lamoriello and Trotz. But a playoff spot is hardly guaranteed at this point.
“We don’t need you," wasn’t just messing with karma, it was inaccurate. The Islanders could desperately use Tavares; he’s the kind of big-time goal scorer this team lacks.
That, though, isn’t the point.
What is the point is how unfair fans—and media—often are to athletes. Free agency exists because athletes should have the right to choose where to play and to get as much money as they can, while they can.
The notion of "greedy athletes" has always bothered me. How many among us would turn down more money to work someplace else—especially if we believed we were moving to a better organization and/or a better place to live? The difference is that athletes’ salaries are made public and they have a limited window in which to make the big bucks we read and hear about all the time.
I’ve always found it both ironic and sad that whenever there is a work stoppage in sports—these days almost ALWAYS brought on by the owners—most fans complain about greedy athletes. The most greedy people involved are almost always the owners, who are WEALTHIER than the athletes and don’t have a limited window in which to make a lot of money. In many cases, unlike the athletes, they didn’t earn their wealth; they inherited it. No athlete inherits stardom. The scoreboard doesn’t care what your last name is.
During the NFL lockout in 2011, I was talking to an owner about the demands the owners were making. When the NHL locked its players out for a season and when the NBA began a season with a lockout, the commissioners insisted they HAD to gain concessions from the players to survive financially.
I pointed out to the owner that there was no way the NFL could claim it was on the brink of financial disaster, not with the billions pouring in from TV.
“We’re not claiming we NEED more money,” he said. “We’re just saying we WANT more money.”
At least he was honest.
Two seasons ago, when many NFL players knelt before the national anthem in response to the president’s rant against Colin Kaepernick and the handful of players (six the previous weekend) kneeling to protest what they believed was the mistreatment of African Americans by white police officers, many fans booed lustily.
One woman on Fox News screeched: “What in the world could these multi-millionaire athletes be complaining about?”
Of course their complaints had nothing to do with how much money they were making; they had to do with calling attention to something they thought was wrong. Making a lot of money doesn’t mean you give up your constitutional right to protest. Just as being a coward and wearing a hood doesn’t mean you give up your constitutional right to protest.
Next up is the case of Bryce Harper, late of the Washington Nationals, now a member of the Philadelphia Phillies after signing a 13-year $330 million contract last week. That was LESS money than Scott Boras, his super-ego agent, had bragged he would get, but enough to live on. (If you want to find truly greedy people, take a look at agents, led by Boras).
Harper will play in Washington either nine or ten times a season as a Phillie, beginning April 2 when Philadelphia comes to Washington for an early season series.
One would expect the Nationals to put together a video tribute to Harper, who spent seven seasons in Washington; won an MVP Award; helped the team reach the postseason four times and gave the fans innumerable thrills. He also made uncountable dollars for the team in sales of his No. 34 jersey alone.
Washington fans love to look down their noses at fans from Philadelphia and New York. What’s more, the local media has been writing and saying that the Nationals don’t really need Harper since the end of last season. (It’s worth noting that these are many of the same people who are still defending the indefensible decision to sit Stephen Strasburg—another Boras client—down for the 2012 postseason, rather than resting his surgically repaired arm during the regular season).
So, what will happen when Harper steps to the plate for the first time in a visiting uniform or at the end of the video tribute? As someone who grew up in New York, but now lives in Washington, I hope he will receive a full-throated standing ovation.
He deserves it. And THEN Washington fans can legitimately look down their noses at New York fans. Islander fans—my brethren—lacked class last Thursday. It will be fascinating to see if Washington fans prove themselves different.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book is, “Quarterback—Inside The Most Important Position in the National Football League,”—a New York Times bestseller the last two months. His latest work of fiction, “The Prodigy,” is set at the Masters and chronicles a 17-year-old trying to win the tournament while holding off those—his father, agents, apparel company reps—who would like to turn him into a human ATM machine. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com.