As players swap in and out, teams lose integrity

Some player shuffling is fine, but too much and teams start to look interchangeable too

With so many players leaving their former teams due to free agency and trading between teams today in professional sports, teams are losing their integrity — the maintenance of the key players that form the essence of the team over a period of time.

A team which no longer has its star player is no longer the same team since the cornerstone of the team is lost; the team that acquires the player loses its integrity as well. By changing the essence of what makes a team, “player shuffling” (any change of players between teams resulting from trading or free agency) destroys the team integrity inherent in professional sports.

Let’s take, for example, the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. For the past decade, Eagles fans all over the country have been swayed by the play (or lack of play) of their former star quarterback Donovan McNabb. McNabb’s late-drive heroics, especially in clutch situations and postseason games, have earned him the admiration of his many fans.

For diehard Eagles fans, McNabb’s performance on any given Sunday dictated their mood during the following week. But now, however, McNabb is irrelevant to the Eagles and their fans. Why? Because he’s been traded. On April 4, 2010, the Eagles shipped their franchise quarterback to their division rivals, the Washington Redskins, for a second round draft pick.

Although the Eagles say this move was made in an attempt to improve their future prospects, it left a gaping hole in their fans’ conceptions of the team. After all, Eagles fans care much more about their franchise player than a prospect who might have some potential years down the line. This makes the trade nothing less than ridiculous from the fan’s perspective. In past years, rooting for the Eagles was synonymous with cheering for McNabb. Now, fans must pick one or the other — a difficult decision.

A hardcore Eagles fan cannot, and will not, adapt to this emotional divorce. If Eagles fans were asked a year ago why they chose to support their team, the answer was inevitably “McNabb.” The concept of the Eagles team and Donovan McNabb were somehow intricately linked. For example, whenever fans talked about the Eagles’ chances of making the playoffs, one would always refer to the health and performance of their star quarterback.

But now, with McNabb gone, Eagles fans have to search for reasons to like the team. Any questioning of a fan’s reasons to support the team would likely result in a thoughtful silence!

From this example, it is apparent that the Eagles are no longer the same because of this trade. Fans who supported the Eagles because of McNabb’s presence have to either find new reasons to like the team or just drop their support. The consequences of this loss of team integrity are unbearably difficult to cope with, especially for the keenest of fans.

Other recent notable player shufflings of franchise cornerstones include LeBron James waving goodbye to Cleveland to join Dwyane Wade in Miami, Shaquille O’Neal leaving Los Angeles for Miami, then going to Phoenix and Boston, Alex Rodriguez departing the Rangers to play for the Yankees, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen leaving Minnesota and Seattle, respectively, to join the Celtics, and Brett Favre leaving his beloved Packers to spend his remaining years with NFC North division rival Vikings. The list goes on and on.

It is true that some of this player shuffling is caused by the players’ choices (free agency) rather than the teams’ choices (trading). However, both of these contribute to the loss of the integrity of the teams. As much as players (like LeBron James) and teams (like the Eagles) try to defend player shuffling, this is a betrayal of fans from the players and teams.

Certainly, the shuffling of players is a part of the business framework in professional sports. Trading can always be justified by the teams for the reason that management is always looking for the best circumstances to put the team in a winning position. Free agency can always be justified by the players since they are looking after their individual pursuits, whether it be winning, making money, or enjoying the team camaraderie.

But despite these justifications, player shuffling presents the classic case of money taking precedence over loyalty. The desires of the teams and players are important, but these should not be as important as the team’s loyalty to its fans, who contribute to their success and make them such spectacles. As long as money overrides team integrity, player shuffling will continue.

It can be argued that teams acquire free agents and trade in order to perform better, win more, and ultimately attract more fans and gain their loyalty. For example, this seems to be the mantra of the Yankees, who use their money to do exactly this. However, when a high-payroll team like the Yankees lures another team’s star to the Bronx with cash, although New York fans may be satisfied, the fans of the other team lose more than Yankees fans gain. Overall, baseball’s fan base is worse off than before.

Player shuffling will always be part of sports; fans just have to learn to deal with this lack of team loyalty and integrity that result when players enter and leave teams. It is an integral component of the business aspect of the professional sports of our day. However, this does not justify that player shuffling is a valid practice. Whether it is or isn’t valid is another matter, but we do know is that player shuffling is a practice that dissolves team integrity, separating fans from the teams they love (or used to love).