“You know why kids love athletes?”
“I don’t know. ’Cause they screw lingerie models?”
“No, that’s why we love athletes. Kids love athletes because they follow their dreams.”
Since I just watched Up in the Air this weekend,* this segment of dialog was still stuck in my brain when I read Jake Meador’s blog post defending soccer mercenaries today. I readily agree with the basic premise that it’s much easier to be liked as a soccer player if you are lucky enough and good enough to become a loyal player to a big club. The thought-provoking question is really about how to think of great players who weren’t lucky enough to come up through the youth ranks of a big club.
*I completely agree with everyone who calls it today’s The Apartment. It’s funny but it’s not a comedy. Not really.
The theory I’ve developed is that when it comes to athletes, all of us fans still react to them as we did when we were kids. We don’t think of athletes as employees or workers, we think of them as having followed their dreams—our dreams. The longer an athlete maintains that illusion, the more fans will relate. But if an athlete breaks that illusion, watch out. We react poorly when our dreams are shattered.
This, admittedly, is an impossible task for most athletes. At least, in the US, free agency has a certain fairness to it. When a player’s contract runs out, he can sign any deal he can get. Young stars* seeking their first big payday will tend to sign for the most money in order to make up for being underpaid in their earlier career. Older stars seeking a last shot at glory before retirement may take a pay cut to be a role player on a contending team. It always sucks to be a fan of the team which a star leaves but we all understand that if he’s not under contract, he no longer plays for us. And it’s not like this is a surprise, the contract terms were signed years ago.
*Only stars can be mercenaries. Everyday players are journeymen.
Yet despite all that, every year a star player leaves for a bigger/richer/more promising club, there’s grumbling about him selling out or taking the easy path.
In international soccer, it’s even tougher. The transfer system there means that players often have to force their way out of clubs. To the fans, this makes the players seem like the bad guys unless they appear to be forced out of their clubs. And the more the transfer appears to be about money, the more fans dislike the move. This is why the big clubs sell themselves with the myths of their history and why there is so much antipathy toward the nouveau riche among the soccer traditionalists.
The only solution for a player is to try to reëstablish the narrative. Make it not about the money or even the explicit titles. It’s about childhood dreams and recapturing a club’s past glory or wanting to make history with the current squad. And back up the talk with the walk. Be a loyal player. Realize the club is bigger than you are. While it helps to win, losing heroically is also okay.
Make us dream. We don’t want to be reminded that sports is business. We watch sports to escape from all that crap.