Who signs your paycheque…Country or Club?
The issue of getting professional players to participate in “voluntary” international events or exhibition games, arises every four years. Simply put, in this writer’s very humble opinion, professional athletes have the responsibility, nay OBLIGATION to play for their club teams first. International events, such as the Summer or Winter Olympics, the World Cup of Soccer, or the yearly IIHF World Hockey Championships are eventually going to be strictly relegated to amateur events.
Yesterday it was announced that Cleveland Cavalier’s star power forward/centre will not be suiting up for Team Canada in the upcoming FIBA Championships, a qualifier for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Immediately, some of the Canadian sports media went ballistic and jumped all over this calling him a “me first” kind of person. However, this situation is different. It’s not that Thompson doesn’t want to play, it’s that he has not signed a qualifying offer with the Cavaliers and is therefore not under contract. This prevents him from being insured if her were to be injured during the tournament. A prime example of the kind of inury that can occur is what happened to Indiana Pacers center Paul George in last year’s intersquad game prior to the FIBA games. He absolutely shattered his leg. Fortunately for him, he was already under conmract and was insured. UN-fortunately, he missed a good portion of the season.
I for one, am OK with just having amateurs playing in these events. Growing up, I always thought the Olympics were supposed to be a showcase for our amateur athletes. But then, every four years the United States kept getting their lunch handed to them in basketball. So they initialized the idea of: “Let’s allow Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson to play and we’ll see what happens… or we’ll take our ball and go home.” In the blink of an eye, Canadian Olympic officials immediately jumped on board that ship with our men’s hockey team in the Winter Olympics.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that everyone wants to watch the best of the world play against each other. The problem with professional athletes playing in these events, is player behavior liability and the very real possibility of an injury to one of the great players in a specific sport. A prime example of this occurred last year to then Indiana Pacers star Center Roy Hibbert who shattered his league in
Does anyone even remember the last “World Baseball Classic”? I barely have a vague recollection that it existed. I know I didn’t watch a single game It appeared to me that most of North America just didn’t seem to care. To be completely honest, I want my favorite Detroit Tigers to show up at Spring Training totally healthy, with a positive attitude, and a determined willingness to destroy the boundaries of every stadium.
It would seem however, the rest of the world was really psyched up for that tournament. Japan, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, heck I think Fiji was pumped up for it even though they didn’t have a team entered. But on a daily basis I remember hearing about another North American, or even a very rare Latino player, claiming to be ‘injured’, recovering from an injury, or simply choosing not to play for their country. Co-incidence? I think not.
In the first World Baseball Classic, reigning National League MVP Albert Pujols, a native Dominican, had to pull out due to insurance issues. Pujols had off-season surgery to move a nerve in his right elbow, and he has had a ligament injury in that same elbow for nearly six years. He was not permitted to play for the Dominican team as a result of the operation, and the impending insurance claims.
This injury issue is enough of a concern during the All-Star breaks of each of the four major sports in North America. We should simply “name the players to these teams,” giving them the honor of being an All-Star, while earning a possible salary bonus. It might be a good idea to just stick to the skills contests, cancel the actual games, and hope for the best. These All-Star “breaks” are designed to give the players a chance to rest, to recuperate, to spend some needed family time, and prepare for the second half of the season for which they are getting paid.
Ninety percent of the time, the games are not entertaining, and the television ratings continue to plummet. As a New England Patriots fan, I get petrified when every Pro Bowl comes up and we have 4 or 5 guys playing. What happens if one of them gets seriously injured? Now imagine being an owner, or General Manager worrying about their star players getting hurt during this ‘exhibition’ performance for the good of the league.
During the 1996 Olympics, Steve Nash, The NBA’s and Canada’s best point guard at the time, did not play for team Canada because his boss at that time, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, said “No, you cannot go.” It had nothing to do with Nash’s desire to go, as the Canadian media went on about. This is one of the few times I agree with Mr. Cuban. He was paying Nash’s salary and did not want his meal ticket to end up on the Disabled List because of some freak accident. Nash has a bad enough injury record without adding extra-curricular games.
If we look at injuries that happen outside the regular season, just look at the NBA playoffs. Chicago Bulls guard and one time league MVP, Derrick Rose tore his ACL and was done for the remainder of the Bull’s games. This occurred in the first game of the playoffs, on a seemingly innocuous play. But these injuries can happen so easily. Rose has since injured his other knee, and will miss the rest of the entire 2013-14 season.
With the grueling schedule of a mere regular year, players can break down left and right. Players can only push their bodies so much before something finally snaps. You can only imagine the fear that shot through Miami Heat owner Micky Arison, when LeBron James said he would play for the US Olympic basketball team in London. I’m sure General Manager Ray Shero and team owner Mario Lemieux are biting their nails. I can’t imagine the sweat pouring out of them over the next two weeks, hoping Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, and Evgeni Malkin all come back in fine working order from Sochi. If I were an owner, there would be no way that one of my star players could enter into an international competition. In fact, I would have my legal team checking into the validity of it as a stipulation upon signing of the contract.
I believe this is going to be the factor deciding whether the sports’ league, team owners, or player’s unions will continue to allow the use of their “property” by country teams. This was a major talking point during the last NHL labor disruption. With the Sochi 2014 Games upon us, I’m reminded every day of how every Russian player in the NHL said they would be playing for “Mother Russia.” Whether the league, or their teams would allow it was irrelevant to them. Something about that train of thought is intrinsically wrong. Simply put, a player is a product, owned and paid for by a person, group, or conglomerate. This player signs a contract to play with a TEAM. Leagues and team owners must figure out a way they can protect their most valuable assets. By preventing professional athletes from participating in what have always been traditionally amateur games, that issue is solved.
As well, this will raise awareness of our amateur athletes. We will be able to see them grow through the years in whatever sport they may be in. This is what is so great about the World Junior Hockey Tournament every Christmas. We, as fans, know we are going to see the future of our nation’s great game.
I still don’t understand why we as Canadians don’t understand this when the IHFF World Hockey Championships come up every spring. Sure, some great players did not make the playoffs, but you know what? They have to worry about next year, staying healthy, and making sure their family has an income.
Crosby was accosted with insults and calls of treason because he didn’t play for Canada after being eliminated from the NHL playoffs. Those people need to give their collective heads a big shake. Crosby spent most of the past two years fighting the lingering effects of a concussion. He made sure the message that he loved to play for Canada at every opportunity would not go away. But for now, he deserves the summer break to become healthier for the following regular season, with the club that pays him.
We see European and South American soccer players willing to give their right arm, or first child to play for their beloved countries. Again, one has to wonder when those club teams are going to crack down on this. Ronaldo and Messi, Eden Hazard, and Ryan VanPersi have such an international appeal, and will recklessly continue to play for their countries and their clubs.
But for instance, Malcolm Glazer, an American billionaire owns one of the highest profile teams in sports today, the Manchester United Football Club, as well as the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. John W. Henry, another American billionaire, owns Liverpool FC, and the Boston Red Sox. In this economic climate, and as North American business owners, there is a good chance the time will come where Malcolm and John put their collective feet down. They will say to one of their star international players, “No, you cannot go.” They are paying the salaries, and right now, any tournament or ‘friendly’ match is too much of a liability to the clubs’ future. I don’t think they would be wrong to ask.
My final argument points at the “humanity liability” aspect of our athletes. Nobody is perfect, and history has shown that sometimes certain members of teams might make a bad judgment morality call. and the unfortunate chance that a member of any team decides to do something extremely stupid. We know that proper behaviour has been constantly ingrained into these professionals. But what happens if one guy or girl slips up. Maybe a Kardashian shows up, and a new video is the hit of the Internet within 20 minutes. Again, this could happen to anyone, but it would be best to keep your top quality, highest paid products under wrap, and heavily guarded.
Yes, it is time the sports fan realizes, while technically we pay the players through ticket sales and merchandise, it is the owners and general managers that have the onus of keeping the team afloat, and the sponsors happy with their performance. The best way to do this is by ensuring the health of their star players. The owners already have enough financial issues on their plate dealing with the enormous salaries demanded these days. Worrying about the well-being of the members of their team during an exhibition contest should not be an additional burden. I love Canada, and as much as it pains me to think this, it truly is time for club to come before country.