Loyalty

In one of Bill Cosby’s hilarious stand-up comic bits, he noted that we don’t cheer for players in professional sports any more, we cheer for the uniforms. In a day when players and coaches stand up before an array of microphones and swear allegiance to the team and then are gone before the next day, there is much truth in Cosby’s comedy. Until the uniform is retired, we had better not get too excited about the star that is playing for the home team because he may not be there in the morning.

Many would call this “disloyalty,” but given the commercial world we live in this is simply regarded as “good business.” No one, it seems, can find fault with the young man or young woman who simply wants to “better themselves” by moving on and taking a better deal. By “bettering themselves,” we mean, of course, making more money. It is no longer even a point of debate to suggest that perhaps a young man or a young man would be happier if they stayed where they are, any more than it is to suggest that young athletes would be well advised to remain in college until they earn their degree. There are some who have done that, of course, but it is almost always a function of the home team coming up with enough money to persuade the hero to stay with the team, or the promise of more money down the line after another stellar year in college. It raises an interesting question about the possibility that, perhaps, the notion of loyalty is a thing of the past along with so many other virtues in our day. Unless, of course, we recognize that for many the object of their loyalty these days is money. And not just athletes. I can’t recall offhand a churchman who heard a “calling” from a Church that promised to pay him less. But back to the athletes.

Though I have not really paid attention to these games because the rampant commercialism has destroyed any semblance of amateurism, the most intriguing story to come out of the Sochi Olympics, in my view, is the story of the snowboarder Vic Wild who got no respect from his American support group so he decided to become a Russian citizen and race for “them.” True, he married a Russian woman, but any doubt about where his loyalties lie is erased when one considers the fact that he simply wanted to race and was willing to do so anywhere if the price was right. In this case, it was a simply matter of getting the financial support he insists is required to perform at the highest levels. He wasn’t getting it in his home country, so he went elsewhere and earned two gold medals for his adopted country, as the following snippit from a Yahoo News story makes clear:

Less than 24 hours before the Sochi Games’ closing ceremony, Russia led the overall medal table with 29. The United States ranked second with 27. Were he still competing for the U.S., Wild would be the most decorated American Olympian at the Sochi Games – and the athlete who pushed them into the lead.

Instead, the United States Ski and Snowboard Association dissolved its already-underfunded alpine snowboarding program after the Vancouver Games, leaving Wild with a choice: end his career or defect. When he married Russian snowboarder Alena Zavarzina in 2011, Wild applied for citizenship in her country and its greatest perquisite: the support of an Olympic organizing committee that valued alpine snowboarding.

“I would not have snowboarded for the United States,” Wild said. “I was done snowboarding. I would have moved on. I would have gone to college. And I would have had a great life. I had another option. The only option to snowboard was to go to Russia and snowboard. I wanted to continue snowboarding, to see how good I can be. I wanted to know I gave it everything I had. …

“I was done. I had called them. I had retired. It has nothing to do with the United States itself. It only has something to do with the nonprofit organization, the USSA. They didn’t give me what I needed. That’s cool. I’m stoked for them. They’ve done a great job at these Olympics. They’re amazing. They do a great job. But not everybody can be happy. I had to make my decision. And I’m very happy that I did that.”

Ignoring the false dichotomy between either Vic quits snowboarding or he defects [there is a third alternative], his fellow snowboarders don’t fault Vic, as I dare say few if any Americans will. He was simply seeking to “better” himself, i.e., put himself into a position where he could excel at a game he loves. But we need to recall it is a game, despite the tons of money that are thrown at successful athletes before, during, and (especially) after the Olympics. If Russia is anything like America in this regard, as reports suggest that it is, Vic will be a very wealthy and adored hero in his adopted country, which I suspect might have been part of his motive in the first place. But make no mistake: he is not being disloyal. He is being loyal to the only thing that really matters to so many of us, namely, money. And if you can make a ton of money doing something you happen to be very good at doing, so much the better, regardless of where you do it.

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