Big Pimpin': Peyton Manning and the loyalty double standard

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 James’s of this world. Instead we hear that while Manning’s release might have been 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 we are willing to call owners like Jim Irsay out as the pimps that they are.

[Dave Zirin is the author of “The John Carlos Story” (Haymarket) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailingdave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.]

17 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Peyton and "Mr." Irsay

Note how the media treats the players in the same condescending fashion as the owners:

- Peyton Manning - always called "Peyton" or sometimes "Manning." - never "Mr. Manning"

- Jim Irsay - Usually called "Mr. Irsay" - sometimes "Irsay" - never "Jim"

/Not just a racial issue (obviously not in this case) - but a class issue - people who work with their hands don't get deserve the respect indicated by a title such as "Mr."

Owners' Loyalty

Legendary quarterback Peyton Manning released by team that he starred for 15 years, an all too common sports owner loyalty to players.

Good column

You've nailed this one, Dave.

A Colts Tradition

The Colts once abandoned arguably the most fanatically loyal fan bases in all professional sports. But, of course, in the Baltimore days even Johnny Unitas was finally expendable.

What about the 99%?

My personal opinion is this Peyton Manning story has been overblown. That this happened to Peyton Manning makes it more egregious this time? This happens every day in the NFL to guys who give just as much of their heart, soul and body to the team as Peyton (think Hines Ward). They just don't happen have as high a profile.

I agree with the sentiment expressed in the article. I just can't get all worked up because this time it's Peyton Manning.

To put it in perspective...

Irsay did keep Manning on the active list instead of optioning him to the injured reserve, whereby he could have paid him less for the one season. Likely most owners would have done the latter. I'm with CB, I guess, in that of all instances, I can't get worked up about the parting.

More generally, I agree with the sentiment, that loyalty in sports, like in much of life, is highly conditional. I never got on Lebron's case for leaving. He wasn't disloyal, as he held up his end of the contract and left once it expired, all within the rules. Employers and employees are seldom loyal without an ulterior motive, so why should athletes or teams be any different?

Years ago, no less than Pete Rose imparted on his radio show that players were not loyal back in the day. They just had no choice of where they could play until free agency. People demanding loyalty, fans included, typically want one party to take less money for more effort.

Mr. manning and Loyalty

Yes, the days are gone for honoring loyalty. As a carpenter of 20 years, who brought in positive PR to my boss as well as contracts worth over $500,000, when the times got not tough, just a bit tight, I was released. I became a cost. Younger guys would work for fewer benefits, less money, and provide all their own tools. Far less cost to my boss, who can pocket the difference.

Peyton could have sat on his tush all next year, and helped Stafford out. Now I've heard that there was acrimonious relations between Mr. Manning and the rest of the team. Perhaps. But he was and will be to the next team that picks him up, a wealth of benefits. He brings the player skills as well as intangibles that result in profits down the road.

I think it's high time we re-think the American economic model.

Loyalty a vanishing trait

I always refer to DZ distinguish between good and bad millionaires. In this case Peyton good,Irsay bad. The irony for Rob the carpenter is that Peyton has more in common with Irsay than any union tradesman. Does a union tradesman fly to next job in a private jet? Can a union carpenter go to a different company and set his/er wages and working conditions?

Despite what DZ writes and thinks, history will look at our age as the golden time for pro-athletes. And if Irsay is the pimp and Lebron is the whore that makes the fans the johns.

Loyalty a vanishing trait

Damn. Well put Racist Moi?.

Newt

dave can you go one article without making some idiotic wisecrack about something relating to the Republican party...stop pushing your political views on people

Wait a minute, Aaron

"People demanding loyalty, fans included, typically want one party to take less money for more effort."

Say what?!

That is a decidedly one-way street (how does an owner take "less money for more effort?), which is precisely Dave's point. Certainly in the court of public opinion, the owners hold all the cards.

Peyton & Lebron

I don't blame Lebron for leaving Cleveland. I just don't like the way he did it. To his credit, he admits he made a mistake, though--something Irsay would never do.

@Newt

This is HIS BLOG. Where he blogs HIS THOUGHTS. If you don't like his political views, don't read it. This is a blog about politics and sports, how can he not talk about his political views.

Peyton & Lebron

Agreed with most of what you said Dave, particularly the overall sentiment. I don't blame LeBrong for leaving, they refused to put anyone around him, I just loathe his ridiculous press conferences and announcements he made etc. Just sign with the team and playt he game, call me when you've won something, you'll never be Jordon, Magic, Lebron etc. I find LeBron immature and more like A-Rod then Derek Jeter. The business of sports is dirty and the players deserve more respect then they are given, but I think some of them should act more like Peyton and less like LeBron in general

Lebron and Peyton

I think that the reason that Lebron was so vilified when he left the Cavs was not so much that he switched teams but the cowardly, egotistical way he did it. He never spoke to the Cavs owner to tell him of his decision. Instead he had an hour of pure narcissism on television to announce his choice. We are used to bad behavior by athletes, but I think this just crossed a line where people said "enough".

Crossed a line?

Bill,

We've had athletes charged with rape, murder, torturing dogs and on and on, and what really burns you up is Lebron, uh, what? Not being humble? Being tacky? I still can't figure out anything LeBron has done wrong. He didn't even demand out of his contract before it had expired.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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