Miami Heat president Pat Riley went on the offensive this week, telling us all that we needed to “get a grip” in a rambling, Godfather-esque diatribe aimed at putting pressure on his team’s top player—LeBron James—to not opt out of his contract.
For those of you who want to sit through it, here is the entire press conference he held Thursday:
And Riley also made it clear that he expected loyalty from his Big Three.
“You gotta stay together, if you’ve got the guts. You don’t find the first door and run out of it.”
That sounds nice. It’s appropriately Knute Rockne-like. It’s also complete and utter bulls**t.
The existence of loyalty in professional sports is the biggest myth that still exists in the minds of fans and the media who follow the game.
There has never been, nor will there ever be, loyalty in professional sports.
Are there exceptions? Of course there are. The late Tony Gwynn consistently took less than market value to remain with the San Diego Padres.
But these are not the norm, either on the side of the players—who most often get blamed for being disloyal—or management, who will demand loyalty such as how Riley did Thursday but who will also cut or trade a player in a heartbeat if they think (a) they can acquire a better player, (b) they can acquire roughly the same talent level at a lower price or (c) they believe the player has outlived his usefulness.
If Riley was worried about James, Bosh and/or Wade being loyal, perhaps he shouldn’t have agreed to the early termination options that are in the contract of each player.
The truth of the matter is that players don’t often have a lot of leverage. When they have that leverage and want to exercise it, there are always fans and, especially, members of the media ready to pounce on them for being the reincarnation of Attila the Hun.
Free agency has changed the equation in professional sports, in some ways for the better and in a lot of ways for the worse.
But the alternative was the way leagues and teams used to be run, when players were the property of the team … period. The good old reserve clause, a standard piece of player contracts until the Supreme Court finally forbid it in the 1970s, tied players to the teams that held their contracts for a period of, well, forever.
The only time a player had freedom of movement back in the day was when they were released. Teams generally didn’t release players who had a lot of value or leverage, so it wasn’t exactly like the players were backing the Brink’s truck up to the vault.
Was Riley loyal to the Los Angeles Lakers when he decided to “retire” from coaching, only to turn up on the sideline for the New York Knicks exactly a year later?
Was Riley loyal to Stan Van Gundy when he decided to replace him as head coach of the Heat in 2005?
Was Riley loyal to Shaquille O’Neal when he traded his All-Star center to the Phoenix Suns in 2008?
This isn’t meant to rip Riley. He’s done what almost everyone in professional sports has always done—looked out for No. 1.
So why is it if a player decides to use his leverage to better his situation, he’s disloyal, but if a general manager decides to trade or release a player who has been with the team his entire career, he’s just trying to make the team better?
Isn’t loyalty supposed to be a two-way street?
But management wasn’t being disloyal. No, sir. Management was making tough decisions in order to make the team better.
Again, bulls**t. That’s what they sold to the fans in order to extract more cash from their wallets.
Fans can be one of the most powerful tools management has. Management can get fans stirred up about this ridiculous notion of loyalty and get the fans to turn on a player who is merely doing the same thing for himself that the general manager is trying to do for the team—use leverage to better their situation.
I’ve just never understood why it’s OK for management to be disloyal, but players are almost always cast as the bad guys.
Then I remember: It’s because fans and the media buy into the overly romanticized notion of loyalty.
Even though it never existed at all.