Sports fanbases can sometimes take supporting their teams to the extreme by doing things like covering their entire bodies in paint or tailgating for hours on end, all because they’ve become emotionally attached to the players and franchise.
But while fans romanticize the idea of teams and athletes being a part of their family and the idea that they’re part of the team by wearing a jersey on game day, many people forget that playing sports is a career choice for athletes and that it is also a business. The majority of players have to think like individuals outside of the playing field when they’re choosing where they want to work.
Shaquille O’Neal demanded a trade from the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004 when the team chose to commit to Kobe Bryant instead. Though the pair won three consecutive championships together, victory was not enough to keep them on the same team.
After he infamously yelled at Lakers owner Jerry Buss as Buss sat courtside, it was clear O’Neal wanted to get paid what he was worth. The Lakers decided they couldn’t afford to give gargantuan contracts to both him and Bryant, and conceded to O’Neal’s trade demand, sending him to the Miami Heat for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and Brian Grant as well as first-round draft pick that became Jordan Farmar.
Bryant and O’Neal could have brought the franchise more titles, however, the Lakers ultimately decided the better business move was to trade O’Neal, while he chose to maximize his income during the relatively short window athletes have to demand their full value.
Similarly, pitcher Zack Greinke had his best year in 2015 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He finished the season with the best ERA in the league (1.66) and his second Gold Glove Award.
In that same year when Greinke became a free agent, he showed no loyalty to the team he had his best performance on, but instead to himself. Rather than take a one-year $15.8 million qualifying offer from the Dodgers, he left the team to sign a six-year $206.5 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Greinke’s choice to take a higher-paying job is something nearly everyone would do if offered the same two options without considering any sentimentality some had for the uniform they wore. Pro sports are the only job where the latter is supposed to matter more than the former. No one would accuse a McDonald’s cashier of being disloyal if they became a manager at Burger King.
Athletes don’t just have to think about who is offering the most money either. Kevin Durant recently took a pay cut when he became a free agent and left the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors.
Thunder fans were disappointed with Durant because he left money on the table and ditched teammate Russell Westbrook, because the two were considered the dynamic duo of the team. It’s unfair for society to judge Durant for his actions when he is making decisions based on finding his own happiness, something everyone would consider in their career given the chance.
Durant released a statement explaining how his decision to leave wasn’t easy. Ultimately Durant wanted to live in California and enjoyed how selfless Golden State’s style of play was. The small forward gave up money — and being loved in OKC — to fulfill personal desires he wanted to gain from his place of work.
Whether Durant wanted to play with more pass-happy players or just to win a ring, he did the same thing basically anyone would do when choosing where they wanted to work: He looked at what was most important to him and picked the option closest to that.
The only way OKC fans could have survived this heartbreak is by understanding that players don’t buy into the mythology of laundry the same way fans do because they can’t. As fun as sports are, they’re also an athlete’s job.
Sure, fans can pick a team and stick with it, but they should be aware of an athlete’s situation. They need a retirement plan and have to consider their families or personal desires just like everyone else when choosing a place to work. If fans put themselves in an athlete’s shoes and think about what they’d do, maybe it would make more sense how they wear them.