Is loyalty in sports marketable anymore?


In the past couple weeks, there has been a lot of discussion in the NBA world about player loyalty. For me, the concept of player loyalty to a team or organization is not as opaque as many make it out to be. Not every situation is the same and each player has a different rationale, yet the media, the fans or both will vilify the player or craft narratives that don’t address the actual reasons for a player’s departure. At the end of the day, the institution that has the largest say in the trade or movement of a player isn’t the player: it’s the business that, in essence, owns them.

An examples of this would be the trade of Kristaps Porzingis. He was traded, along with three other players, from the New York Knicks to the Dallas Mavericks. The Knicks got Dennis Smith Jr., a promising young point guard, two aging players and two future first-round picks from the Mavericks. Many pundits and fans from all around the league have criticized Porzingis for his move, calling him quintessential names like traitor, money grubber and other more profane phrases that we can’t print. What I think many fans and pundits aren’t noting is that there is more to this trade than just money for Porzingis; it’s all out of his hands.

From a fan’s perspective, I can understand being hurt that your best player since Carmelo Anthony is leaving you, but calling him a traitor or claiming he doesn’t care about New York is quite a stretch. From how I observe the move, it does’t appear it was entirely up to him.

When Porzingis was traded, the Knicks were No. 15 in the Eastern Conference and 10–41 overall. From my lofty sports guru perch, that is laughably awful. But as the Knicks are a wealthy team in one of the capitals of world, they are a very desirable team to be the star of. By off-loading Porzingis, they opened the gates to players like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving or Klay Thompson to take over the team and get the max contract.

The Knicks organization saw an opportunity to gain in the long run and made that decision, so whether Porzingis wanted to stay or not didn’t seem to factor into that decision. His loyalty to the team isn’t important in a business scheme. Replacing him with, say, Kevin Durant would be incredibly lucrative for the Knicks in nearly every way. In the end, it was the smart business decision. Loyalty isn’t as important as revenue, jersey sales, sponsorships and titles.

This demonstrates a trend in the modern game of basketball and sports: trade decisions are primarily up to the team, while player loyalty isn’t valued as it used to be. While players can refuse to play or try to initiate a trade, the team or organization or business that pays the bills can simply say no and make the player wait to leave until their contract expires. An example of that situation is the continuing Jimmy Butler saga. Most players, besides the superstars like Lebron James, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, have very little power or say when it comes to where they play.

An example of the lack of power given to individual players is the swap deal of Demar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard from the Toronto Raptors to the San Antonio Spurs. Kawhi Leonard wanted out of the Spurs and sat out for a majority of the season. On the opposite end, DeRozan started nearly every single game for the Raptors and helped them get a No. 1 seed in the Western Conference heading into the playoffs. Yet the summer the Raptors lost to the Cavaliers, the Raptors traded their superstar for another, even though DeRozan had many times said he loved the city, the fans and the team. In every sense of the word, DeRozan was loyal to his team, but that’s not what business cares about. Neither his feelings nor the fans’ feelings mattered in the eyes of the business that he plays for.

Questioning a player’s loyalty in the current environment of sports is, in my humble opinion, useless. There is an elite sector of players who have actual power in their trading decision, the rest have to just pack up, play somewhere else and then get ridiculed for a decision they didn’t have a lot to do with. The anger that fans have towards Porzingis should be targeted at the Knicks organization, for it’s the organization that pulls the strings.

When the cookie finishes crumbling, these athletes are just trying to provide for themselves or their family with the talents they have worked to attain. They do get paid a lot, but that’s not their fault — that’s what the system has become. Loyalty doesn’t matter to businesses, they care about money. It’s not fair or right to target Porzingis. He has loyalty; it’s just not valued.