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Howard In Familiar No-Win Situation

Dwight Howard made one crucial mistake during the process that is already being called “The Indecision”: he was worried about how the public at large would perceive him.

As is often the case when superstar athletes near free agency, people feel no problem injecting their own values into an intensely personal decision about where someone they don’t know lives and works. Media members, most of whom would jump to a new job at a new company in a new city for the slightest hint of a raise, patronizingly warn players of all they have to lose by going to a better operated franchise in a bigger city.

They are always reminded of how much they owe the fans, as if superstars like LeBron James and Dwight Howard didn’t work for below market wages the first five years of their careers for teams they never chose to play for. Yet the converse, that fans owe the players something, is never assumed to be true.

Peyton Manning put the NFL on the map in Indianapolis; there’s little chance the city would have been hosting a Super Bowl without him. But after 13 seasons where he never missed a game and played at as high of a level as anyone in the history of pro football ever has, the Colts didn’t hesitate to cut him loose when they were given the chance to replace him with a younger and cheaper prospect.

There’s no way Indianapolis could have kept Manning. It would be crazy for a 2-14 organization to take a 36-year-old coming off major neck surgery over a 22-year-old widely regarded as the best QB prospect in over a decade. It was a business decision that had to be made.

Fans who pay thousands of dollars in tickets don’t want to subsidize aging millionaires who don’t know when they need to hang it up; they want their money to produce results on the field. Organizations investing hundreds of millions of dollars in players can’t afford to be sentimental; the best ones are capable of removing all personal relationships from the decision-making process. Yet it’s only the players that are vilified when people talk about the way money affects professional sports.

If the conductor of the Dallas orchestra had the opportunity to be the conductor of the New York orchestra, classical music fans in North Texas wouldn’t take it personally if he left for more money and more opportunity on a bigger stage. Yet when LeBron chose to play in an objectively better situation for him professionally, fans throughout Cleveland thought it was perfectly reasonable to burn their own clothes in effigy and rejoice in the fact that he did not grow up with a father in his life.

After the fact, many pointed to the way LeBron handled “The Decision” as the reason for why he became so reviled. In reality, there was no way he could have handled it that wouldn’t have resulted in much the same effect, as Carmelo Anthony and Howard discovered in the months since.

LeBron was attacked for callously betraying his hometown on national TV; Howard was publicly humiliated for caring too much about the feelings of his adopted hometown. And as he was faced with a ticking clock for one of the hardest decisions he will ever have to make in his life, a decision that could have far-ranging implications on not just his career but the entire trajectory of the NBA, he was blasted and mocked for changing his mind a few times about it.

The reality is, as much as fans may love Howard now for staying, they’ll turn on him if he doesn’t win a championship. It won’t be enough to point out that he’s playing for an Orlando franchise that has never paired him with an All-Star caliber player in the prime of their career; instead people will search far and wide for some type of character flaw that will let them mold Howard’s story into a pre-written narrative: He can’t handle the pressure of a big market! He’s too nice! Does he have that “killer instinct” that all great players must have to win!?

The underlying lie beneath the entire conversation about what athletes should do to win over fans is that their personal character is important in that process. It isn’t. Winning is important.

If an athlete wins enough games and performs at a high enough level, there’s nothing that won’t be forgiven, from allegations of drug dealing, domestic violence, rape and even murder. And if an athlete isn’t winning enough games or performing at a high enough level, no amount of public goodwill or previous good work will make up for that.

My favorite story about the fickle nature of fandom comes from 2006, when Michael Finley returned to Dallas in the Western Conference Semifinals as a member of the San Antonio Spurs.

Finley was with the Mavericks in some of the franchise’s darkest days and he was their biggest star, not Dirk Nowitzki or Steve Nash, when the Mavericks made the playoffs in 2000. Yet he graciously allowed the two younger players to step into the spotlight before Dallas waived him in 2005 as part of the amnesty clause in the new CBA. At that point, while the Mavericks were paying tens of millions of dollars not to play him, he decided to play for a winning organization in San Antonio. Naturally, when he returned in 2006, he was booed relentlessly, especially after a Game 5 altercation where Jason Terry punched him in the groin.

If Howard thinks taking less money, which he is doing when you consider the endorsement opportunities he would have playing for a title contender in New York/Brooklyn, Los Angeles or Dallas, will get people off his back, he is wrong.

At this point, the only thing that will redeem his reputation is winning a championship. A year from now, when he is faced with this same situation all over again, he might be better off basing his decision on the best way to go about doing that.

 

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