Professional athletes, we are constantly told, are disloyal souls. They’re ungrateful. They’re selfish. They don’t care about the team, the fans or the community. They are only out for themselves. The perpetual prime example of this egomaniacal archetype is the person author Scott Raab called the “Whore of Akron”: basketball player Lebron James. The Ohio-born James left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat and overnight became the Sports World’s number-one villain. Well, if Lebron James is the Whore of Akron, what does that make Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay?
On Wednesday, Irsay released his future Hall of Fame quarterback, 35-year-old Peyton Manning. In Manning, we have a player who exemplifies everything we say we want in athletes. He revered the tradition of the franchise. He involved himself in the community. He even built a hospital, for goodness sake. At the press conference announcing his release, he started to cry when talking about how much he’ll miss the equipment manager at the team’s practice facility.
This is someone who led his team to an NFL record 115 wins and nine straight playoff appearances over the last decade, while winning four most-valuable-player awards. This is someone who started 208 straight games. This is that rare player, like the Yankees’ Derek Jeter or the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, who is almost impossible to imagine in another uniform.
Despite this remarkable record of accomplishment, Manning, in Irsay’s eyes, was seen as expendable. No loyalty. No humanity. Just business. But you aren’t seeing sports writers, commentators or bloggers ripping Irsay apart for his lack of fidelity. No one is burning their Colts jerseys in protest. Those kinds of brutal character assaults are reserved for the Lebron Jameses of this world. Instead, we hear that while Manning’s release might have been a tough decision, it had to be done. As Andrew Brandt wrote at SportsIllustrated.com, “In the end, Irsay’s decision to part with Manning is an understandable business decision, ruling from his head rather than his heart. Organizations must evolve. Leaders must respect the past, but not be controlled by it.” Brandt’s words have been echoed as the conventional wisdom across the sports landscape.
Yes, Peyton missed the entirety of last season with a neck injury, but that’s not stopping suitors across the league from drooling at his door. Yes, Peyton was due a massive signing bonus from the team if they didn’t release him, but this pales in comparison to the cash he has put in the owner’s pocket. This includes the hundreds of millions of dollars Irsay received in the construction of the publicly funded Lucas Oil Stadium, which can be fairly called “the house that Peyton built.” But Jim Irsay, in an action that should brand him as the Newt Gingrich of NFL owners, cast Peyton aside for a younger, prettier option. Peyton’s injury sank the Colts this season, landing them the coveted number-one draft pick and the opportunity to select shiny rookie Andrew Luck from Stanford. Not personal, just business.
Whenever owners release star players, the media applauds with somber respect. But the Lebrons of the world, despite their commercial value and cultural capital, are treated less like business people than ungrateful wards of the state. It’s a deeply condescending and highly racialized dichotomy that reaches back to Major League Baseball player Curt Flood’s perilous efforts to win free agency. If you play a children’s game, then the media and fans expect you to act as grateful and loyal as a child. If owners like Irsay are praised for “ruling from his head rather than his heart”, we never grant players that same respect. But even when a player comes along like a Peyton Manning, who meets every expectation and satisfies our every unreasonable demand, it’s still not enough.
Never talk to me again about what players “owe” their teams. Never ask why athletes aren’t more grateful to the people who sign their checks. Never refer to Lebron as "the whore of Akron” unless you are willing to call owners like Jim Irsay out as the pimps that they are.