For love of the game, or the almighty dollar?

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Photo courtesy of Jeff Turner

A common quality exists among all people associated with professional sports, from team presidents, to general managers, trickling down to coaches and players, and it is that of loyalty. This powerful sense of allegiance is not to the team or the players, however. Rather, it is to money. Each year, several long-time contributors are let go by their teams when their values are determined to have fallen below their price tags.

Consider the case of veteran center Nick Mangold, longtime anchor of the New York Jets offensive line who was released this offseason to free up money. Mangold spent 11 seasons in New York blocking for Jets quarterbacks, started 164 games and was selected to seven Pro Bowls. But at the end of the day, the bottom line rules decision making in front offices, and the veteran lineman was considered too pricy to keep around any longer. Thus ended a decade-long relationship; a swift break with little fanfare.

This is one of many such instances that occur every offseason and in every sport. This is a business, after all, and making money is the prime objective. Winning is said to be the goal of every team, because winning brings in more money than losing. This is no attempt at drumming up sympathy for players, though. Athletes, of course, do the same thing every free-agency period.

The interesting thing is often venomous sentiment flows from the mouths and keyboards of fans when athletes, whom the fans perceive as being devoid of loyalty or values, leave a city to chase a higher payday elsewhere. Every player knows, or at least they ought to, that in the eyes of the front office they are little more than a cog in the money-making machine that is the team. As good as any player may be, their window of value is only open for a short time and when it closes, the team owes them no devotion. Just ask Dwyane Wade, Johnny Unitas or Willie Mays, none of whom were shown any love by their teams after their respective on-field value had seemingly expired.

This dollar-chasing attitude shared by organizations and players alike is not immoral nor unethical. As I said, this is a business, and the individuals involved have every right to pursue a paycheck in their chosen lines of work. Yet, ethically acceptable as it may be, mixing sports with salaries seems to weaken the emotional investment, even if only slightly.

There seems to be a tangible difference between watching someone play for money as opposed to simply for love of the game. This is precisely the reason why college athletics offers fans a superior rooting experience. The recent culmination of the latest edition of March Madness was a strong reminder of why we love college sports.

Undeniably evident in every tear spilled into a face-covering towel is the underlying love of school, teammate and pure competition. The uncontrollable excitement seen in the faces of those rushing the court after a bench-clearing buzzer beater has seldom been rivaled in professional sports. This is the most undiluted essence of sport, and in these moments, the world is perfect.

The topic of paying college athletes is a discussion for another day. Perhaps they ought to be compensated for the immense revenue generated by the games they play. However, should any sort of pay scale or salary system be one day implemented, we risk losing something: A certain aspect of passion may exit the game. It’s a small thing yet powerful and indisputable. The passion of representing one’s hometown while standing beside brothers.