"You know what they said about Joe DiMaggio," [Ken] Burns said. "He owes us nothing but hits. And maybe, in the end, for as much as our media culture needs more, maybe Ichiro owes us nothing but hits."
-Maybe all Ichiro owes us is hits, Seattle Times, 20 September 2010
I read this earlier this week, and it got me to thinking about athletes in general and what people want and expect of them. There are a lot of things that people want from them: time, money, effort, publicity, etc. But, really, what do they actually owe us? Anything?
NHL training camps started up last weekend, and I went with a friend and he brought a friend to see the Washington Capitals. They’d never been to an NHL training camp, or even practice, before. They loved it, of course. Everyone who goes tends to enjoy it, so that’s no real surprise.
So my friend is a fan of the Caps. I wouldn’t call him a diehard fan, but he’s getting there. He was hoping to get Alex Ovechkin’s autograph, and was disapproving when I said that sometime guys (not necessarily Ovechkin himself, just generally speaking) will slink out to try to avoid crowds of people. Which, frankly, I can’t blame them for since that can be overwhelming at times, I’m sure.
My friend obviously had this expectation that the players – and in this particular case, Ovechkin – were obligated to be accommodating. It was the first day of training camp, after all, and they’re supposed to be doing autographs and such. And to some extent, they are. I mean, that is part of their job marketing the game themselves. No one argues that.
But there was this distinct sense of entitlement that I found disturbing – and it wasn’t the first time that I’d encountered that. That the players were required to be there for the fan simply because they were a fan and that’s their job. Entrance to training camp was free, so it wasn’t as if there was that expectation that, because they paid money, they’re entitled to someone’s time. No, it was just because they were a fan that the players were required to cater to them.
The reality is that the players are only required to do what the team tells them to do. They don’t have to do autographs after practice or after a game. They don’t have to do charity work. All they have to do is play hockey (or whatever sport) and go to team-sanctioned events. That’s it. The team pays them and that’s their job. End of story.
I understand that a lot of the money that the team makes is due to fans buying tickets and merchandise. I get that. But with revenue sharing, some team’s fans aren’t the ones solely supporting their team. Fans from other teams are helping out. Does that make Toronto Maple Leafs fans entitled to the time and money of New York Islanders players then?
The bottom line is that this sense of entitlement has nothing to do with money. It has everything to do with the emotional investment a fan makes in their team. I’ve heard female fans explain their fandom by saying that being a hockey fan is like having 23 boyfriends – you worry about how they’re doing if they’re injured, you cheer them on during games and fights, you’re upset for them if they lose, and ecstatic for them if they win. If the guys are honest with themselves about it, it’s the same for them; though, I’d say for them it’d be more like having 23 teammates instead of boyfriends. But that’s the life of every sports fan.
But in the end, despite the ups and downs, the dramas and frustrations, and the first overall draft picks and the championships, they owe us nothing but what they owe themselves: just to play their best. The athletes only owe us the game. That's what we pay to watch, and that's what they get paid for doing. Anything beyond that is just an added bonus.