A couple of weeks ago, LeBron James made the shocking announcement to return home to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that he left four years ago to join the Miami Heat with The infamous Decision. This time, however, there were notable differences with the way in which he handled his departure: no big press announcements, no parties, nothing but an open letter with the comment section closed. King James made his announcement and then quietly got back to work, sans the press and fanfare.
Since LeBron is the biggest figure in the NBA, this news sent the sports blogs and media into a frenzy. While I purposely stayed away from ESPN, in an effort to avoid the oversaturation of all things LeBron, my mission failed upon turning to the internet. In reading my regular, non-sports blogs and social media sites, I was still confronted with the story of LeBron and the news of his decision.
Most of the stories that I read were similar, ending in one never-ending argument between two groups of fans. In general, the public was supportive of LeBron’s decision to return home; the divide, however, broached another, seemingly non-sports related topic: loyalty. In almost each of the stories and/or updates that I read, the argument about franchise vs. individual player loyalty surfaced in connection with LeBron. I found this particular debate concerning loyalty to be interesting because it parallels directly to everyday life, outside of the sports world.
So here’s the argument in a nutshell. Some people are fans of LeBron and have agreed to follow him to any team that he chooses because they love the king. Others, however, believe within their heart of hearts that those fans who follow him from franchise to franchise are bandwagon fans because they have chosen a player over a franchise. The latter are sort of like sports purists and frequently admire the Spurs “built not bought” approach (and the approach of the old-era NBA with Magic, Jordan, Byrd and before), that praises a system where teams are built through the draft, as opposed to a new-era approach of creating or “buying” a team through trades and free agency.
Although I can see the points made by both sides of the aisle, I say that neither side nor approach is better nor worse; they’re just different approaches given the situation that the franchise faces. (Note: No one really gave the Big Three Celtics team a tough time for putting their team together; so it seems like this hatred for that approach is largely tied to James’ Decision.)
This article, however, is not about how to build a championship NBA team because I am not a basketball expert. It is, however, about how we view loyalty because, as a social scientist, I can speak to interactions between and amongst people.
Frankly, I think that we have it wrong with the way that we view loyalty in sports. In life and work, people base their loyalty on where they are in a given scenario or institution. For example, a CEO’s version of loyalty is going to look different than the average employee; each person’s loyalty is based on his or her perspective. Yet, in sports, we have adopted this all or nothing approach to loyalty, which seems highly illogical. Fans are tagged with the bandwagon label when they place value in an individual over a franchise. They are touted as disloyal, when in fact, they are loyal, but their loyalty is to that individual player and not to the franchise. They, in fact, are not bandwagon fans because they are fiercely loyal, but their loyalty is defined differently.
Even though people act as if this is a new era phenomenon, it is not. The popularity of the Chicago Bulls as a franchise skyrocketed once the Bulls acquired Michael Jordan. Where were all of these Chicago Bulls fans before Jordan’s arrival? Conversely, the number of Bulls fans during the post-Jordan era has diminished considerably. Why? It’s because many people bought into Jordan as a player and not necessarily the Bulls as a franchise.
One could read this and say that my views are slanted towards the bandwagon fans, which is inconsistent with the way that I have come to view this argument. In fact, I believe that both approaches are correct. People define loyalty different based on the choices and decisions that face them. People who put franchises or companies above players and employees are loyal a certain group or institution. On the other hand, people who are loyal to players or certain employees/managers are loyal to individual personalities. It’s all about perspective.
This perspective can translate into daily life. In dealing with a person, one would be advised to know how that person defines loyalty in order to avoid hurt feelings and general conflict. It wouldn’t be a good idea to approach a situation having an individual concept of loyalty with a person who has an institutional concept of loyalty; feelings are bound to be hurt as conflict arises. Such was the case with The Decision in 2010.
LeBron made a choice based on what he thought would be good for him personally. He had played several years and brought millions (maybe even billions) of dollars to Cleveland, but he wanted a championship (individual loyalty) and saw Miami as a better option. Many of the fans in Cleveland, however, had institutional loyalty and wanted LeBron to place his love for the institution, the Cleveland Cavaliers, over his personal aspirations. When that didn’t happen, then they were livid. Albeit, some were upset because of the pomp and circumstance with which he announced his decision to leave; my bet is that they still would’ve been upset with him leaving because of how his departure devastated the team and the economy of the city.
At any rate, it’s important to look at the concept of loyalty. How do you view it? Do those who you regularly interact with share in your concept, or do you have differing approaches? If your approaches differ, then it’s good to know that upfront because, if not, you’ll end up having your “proverbial jersey” burned, once conflict arises from hurt feelings over different approaches. Don’t believe me…ask LeBron.