“Loyalty is something you give regardless of what you get back, and in giving loyalty, you are getting more loyalty; and out of loyalty flow other great qualities.” ~ Charles “Tremendous” Jones
It is that time of the year again in the NFL and the conversation is always the same among the media, fans, team executives, and many former players. I am talking about free agency. Although the first word – and keyword if you ask me – is “free” it seems to be the less relevant element of the equation. At least when we talk about players. For some reason, the media, the fans and people in front offices of teams can talk all day long about how a certain player can make a good addition to a team, who would fit their offensive or defensive schemes, whose market value is the best for that team’s salary cap or who can help the team achieve its goal, whether it is to simply be competitive, make the playoffs, get out of the wild card round or win a championship, but players are not allowed to think about what is best for them. Let me rephrase. Players can think about what is best for them but not out loud, and they are not allowed to act on it if what is best for them is not in alignment with what everybody else thinks is best for their current team. Off-season after off-season, all I keep hearing about from people other than the players, and mostly by fans, is loyalty. Players’ loyalty or lack thereof.
Not only do players have to be loyal but they also have to be gracious and classy toward their former organization when they get traded or released because “it is just business”. Nothing personal, they are told. They are also expected to not have a mind of their own. They have to check who they are and what they care about at the locker room’s door if these things might be seen as offensive to those who pay them, which include their employers and the fans, but I digress…
Every single player who is on an NFL roster right now will become yesterday’s news at some point and it can happen in the blink of an eye. It doesn’t matter if he is a superstar or a journeyman. His replacement is a draft pick away, a trade deal away or might even already be on the roster. Teams know it, players know it, the media know it, fans know it, and yet, players are always expected to do what is best for everybody else and wait until that shoe drops. And then what? The reality is that the average NFL career is quite short and players who are fortunate enough to make it to the league have to make the best of their time there. Winning a championship is the ultimate goal if you play sports at any level and even more so when it is your job but, as in any job, especially one where your employer(s) and your industry make a lot of money thanks to the product that you put out, how hypocritical is it for people to crucify players who want to be paid? Those championship rings look good on one’s fingers or in a case at home, and they make a great impression on a resume. They can also be the difference makers in the decision to enshrine a player into the Hall of Fame when it is all said and done, but let’s be honest here, how many players from yesterday, today and tomorrow will ultimately make it to the Hall of Fame? This is a very selective club, as it should be. And so is the club of winners of the Lombardi trophy. Every year, by the time the pre-season is over, we have a good idea of how many teams will actually be contenders at the end of the season. This list of hopefuls gets even shorter as the season goes on and, ultimately, only one team can win.
Players are expected to never take ANYTHING personally, whether it is being called out by the media, being traded or released, being insulted by the fans. The line is always: “It’s not personal.” But, they have to consider everybody else’s feelings when making a decision for their career, especially in free agency, which is the only time they have any form of control over their next move. And even that control is subject to limitations based on who the player is, his age, his history of injury, his production during the previous season(s), the position he plays, his value on the market, etc. Just because a player is a free agent does not mean that he is going to get what he wants. In the event that this player actually gets his wish in that instance, we have all seen guys being signed to 4 or 5-year contracts, just to see them being cut or traded before the end of these contracts. So, what control does a player really have in the end?
Still, they are told they have to be loyal to a fault when everybody else is seeing them as disposable pieces and playing fantasy football with their reality.
Let’s talk about loyalty for a moment.
In personal relationships, loyalty is one of those things that should come naturally and that has to be nurtured in order to genuinely and consistently exist. To me, being loyal to a friend or a partner means having that person’s back in private and in public, and having their best interest at heart. Ideally, both parties adhere to that unspoken agreement of mutual loyalty and all is well. However, as you and I know, life is not always that simple and is rarely ideal. Oftentimes, at some point, an imbalance develops, and there could be many reasons for that. I am not going to get into all of these potential reasons but what I learned is that you cannot make someone want to be loyal, or anything else for that matter; they have to want it and that seed has to grow in them organically. Unless it really comes from within, whatever you are going to get is going be hollow. Take apologies for instance. If you have been wronged and you tell the person who is responsible for that feeling that they owe you an apology, I can guarantee you that unless that person sincerely believes that they did something wrong, you might hear or read a statement with the word “apologies” or “apologize” in it, but that statement will definitely not qualify as an apology. It will sound something like “I apologize if I hurt you…” or “I apologize if you feel as though I hurt you…”. Who wants to hear that? The type of so-called apologies that you wish you never received. Loyalty works the same way. To exist in any type of relationship, it has to be wanted and felt by the person who gives it, not demanded by the person who wishes to receive it.
As a general rule of thumb, when it comes to loyalty in any type of relationship, if I feel it, I give it without expecting anything in return. I do it because I want to. Whatever the other person gives me or does not give me in return is their choice and it’s my choice to stay or bounce if I am not satisfied with the situation.
Demanding loyalty is more about ego, power, and control than anything else and it might work for a little while but it is a bad recipe in the long run. It is also about ownership over someone else or at the very least the illusion of ownership. And when you think about the relationship between players and their employers, as well as the relationship between players and the fans, that notion of ownership is very relevant.
Pro athletes can never win. If they go for the money, they are not ambitious enough, if they go for the best chance at winning a championship, they are choosing the easy road. If they are fortunate, they can sometimes find themselves in a position where they can actually go for both, but honestly, how often does that happen in a career? My advice to them is “Do you!”. You are never going to please anybody and once you make a decision, you and you alone have to live with the consequences. If you go broke after your career ends, even if you won a championship or two along the way, very few people will cry for you. When your body, and maybe even your mind, start failing you later in life, you will need every penny you ever made. So, do you! It’s not personal and definitely not about loyalty.