Players who leave via free agency are not disloyal

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I was on vacation with kids for, like, eight days and almost completely lost touch with sports. One thing that broke through, though, was NBA free agency. Middle of a 10 mile hike in a dang national park and you could still hear chatter about Kevin Durant. This was especially true given the proximity of the national park I was in to the Bay Area. Durant, of course, signed with the Warriors, so those chattering hikers are mostly happy today, I assume.

Not everyone is happy, of course. There are a lot of folks who hate that Durant went to Golden State. Thunder fans, for obvious reasons. No one likes it when their team’s star leaves via free agency, so they get a pass. But there’s a more generalized displeasure about it all, fueled by the Stephan A. Smith types and sports yakkers at large. This displeasure is rooted in either (a) anger that an already dominant team is getting the best available free agent; or (b) anger specifically at Durant for, somehow, showing a lack of character or cowardice or something by going to a team that was already good and which already has a big star or two. I guess he was supposed to go to Philly? Hard to say. These arguments are rarely fleshed out.

Baseball folks are familiar with (a) of course. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s there was anger about the Yankees seemingly getting all the big free agents. It was overstated — the Yankees won more before they started spending huge than after and many of the largest free agent deals were handed out by other clubs — but the “the Yankees are buying championships!” thing was taken as gospel and was greatly lamented. The (b) dynamic has always been less-pronounced in baseball given that one player can’t dominate to the extent one basketball player can, but players have always been criticized as greedy and self-centered for taking big free agent contracts with new teams. They have always been cast as disloyal in some way for leaving the team which drafted them.

Leagues and teams are never held to such standards of loyalty and are rarely called out by the dominant voices in sports media or by fans at large for their greed. Or, to put it less sharply, their financially-motivated decisions. July is the month when the Major League Baseball trade deadline falls and over the next few weeks a lot of players will be changing teams. Most of them will be doing so against their will and, in some cases, to their great dissatisfaction. Many of the teams will make these trades to save some money. They will not get anything approaching the sort of criticism that Kevin Durant is getting for going to Golden State. Or that any given baseball free agent gets for switching teams.

Both situations, however, are part of the game. They’re part of the business of sports, as defined by their rules and their collective bargaining agreements. Players without no-trade clauses know that getting moved in July is part of the deal. Teams know that free agency is exactly that and that, eventually, they will lose control of a player. This is the business they’ve chosen. Yet to a large segment of fans and the sports commentariat, only the players are the ones who are greedy or disloyal. The “it’s a business” stuff is nodded at when teams engage in that business, but an athlete taking that position is seen as some sort of mercenary whose character is subject to question. Heck, in Durant’s case he’s being criticized for looking beyond the business aspects. He’s being criticized for wanting to go to team with a great chance to win a championship, which is supposed to the point. In some ways there’s no winning when you’re a player in free agency. At least in the court of public opinion.

I’m not suggesting that anyone feel sorry for Kevin Durant or next winter’s crop of baseball free agents. I’m pretty sure they’ll be fine. But I do wish that fans and the media would do a better job of acknowledging that all parties to professional sports are in a business and all are looking to maximize their interests. That, if we hate the results of those choices, we shouldn’t blame the person or business which makes them, we should blame the system which creates and incentivizes those outcomes. And we should pay close attention when that system is created and changed. At the time broadcasting deals and collective bargaining agreements are signed and the business and conventions of sports are forged.

Or, I guess, we can just stick to the games and then get all mad when the players change. But that seems kind of dumb to me.