Brett Favre, LeBron James: drama kings
But the real theatrics on this summer's sports stages came from their front-office execs
It is baseball season. The simmering pennant races involving the haves (the defending champion New York Yankees), the struggling haves (the two-time defending NL champion Phillies, the perennial superpower Red Sox), the fearless but longtime have-nots (San Diego, Cincinnati and Texas) and the financial have-nots (Minnesota, Tampa Bay) will provide high theater as school starts and the leaves begin to change.
Baseball, however, isn't enjoying the stage alone this summer. It has shared the warm months with two athletes, first LeBron James and now Brett Favre, whose highly individualized dramas exemplify the immense power of the professional athlete in the 21st century and expose the tremendous fault lines that exist between player and team and how the public views the tension.
Even now, six weeks after James' disastrous "decision," the coals between James and the Cavaliers have yet to cool. James now is emboldened, gleefully counterpunching, from his newspaper ad thanking the city of Akron, Ohio (but only partially the city of Cleveland), to his childish announcement that he has essentially created an "enemies list" of people who criticized him that he will use as motivation for his inaugural season with the Miami Heat, to his revelation that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert's name (surprise!) sits at the top of that list.
Gilbert was right to fume that James showed him no class or respect in the way he handled his departure from Cleveland. Letting your employer know you aren't planning to come to work tomorrow is as common a courtesy as taking off your hat during dinner. For all of his carefully crafted corporate positioning, James revealed his immaturity. Even after seven years in the NBA, his polish turned out to be an illusion.
Favre, meanwhile, spent the NFL offseason in his usual position -- the catbird's seat. He didn't retire or unretire; his status officially went unchanged. But that didn't keep an overly aggressive media from an embarrassing false start of a story that he'd decided to call it quits (hours of coverage discussed his legacy and effect on the game without a definitive statement from him that he was quitting). Nor did it keep Favre from reveling in the currency of attention without the courtesy of immediately clarifying his position.
Ambiguity was good for Favre. His employer, the Minnesota Vikings, reportedly gave him a raise. The uncertainty increased his value, if not his popularity.
In both the James and Favre cases, the public response has been to attack the athlete rather than hold accountable the impotent team executives who were largely responsible. That narrative criticizes the players for failing to put their teams ahead of their self-interest.
The most predictable reflex in the Favre saga has come from former players, more inclined to criticize him for using the leverage he has earned that comes with being a great player for the past two decades. The refusal to nuance their thinking -- there is the team as it exists on the field and then there is the team as a party against whom a player negotiates -- in some ways explains why football players earn less and have fewer rights than their big-league peers.
But neither James nor Favre let his teammates or fans down more than the front offices of the Cavaliers and the Vikings did. Both organizations had options, and both chose to fall for the talent trap. One organization, Cleveland, was fatally burned by it; the other, Minnesota, got exactly what it wanted.
The talent trap -- the notion that an athlete's on-field ability trumps the long-term consequences of acquiescing to his every whim for fear of alienation -- is at the center of every free-agent negotiation. Players have the power because they have the talent. The individuals who make up the front office, fearful for their job security and knowing that a Kobe Bryant or LeBron James or Brett Favre or Terrell Owens comes along only once in a generation, know this. Courage to stand up to the talent almost always loses against the balance sheet of potential wins and losses.
Gilbert is upset by one immutable fact: The Cavaliers are a demonstrably worse club today than they were when they last played a basketball game. They are not a championship-level team now, and have been reduced to the eminently forgettable franchise they were before James turned pro and joined them. But who is more culpable for this than Gilbert himself? He clearly knew for at least the past two seasons that (1) James was increasingly upsetting the credibility of the organization with his individual demands and (2) because James had continuously shunned a long-term deal, a high probability existed that he wanted to leave the organization.
Gilbert fell for the talent trap. Perhaps he had no choice, because professional sports, like art and music and Hollywood, is a talent industry and James was -- point for point, rebound for rebound, gift for gift -- an irreplaceable talent.
That is where leadership should have come into play, and Gilbert failed to respond. Gilbert could have taken a bold step and begun to rebuild his team, signing free-agent players before James made his choice to leave, based on his gut instinct. (If his gut instinct told him that James was staying, he either had information he has not disclosed about their relationship or he needs new instincts.) That was the responsible thing to do for his franchise and fan base. Instead, he let himself be played by James.
In Minneapolis, a running narrative is that it was Favre's responsibility to let the Vikings know of his plans out of respect to Tarvaris Jackson, who was going to be either the Vikings' starting quarterback or Favre's backup. Jackson's progress, goes that line of thinking, is being impeded by the Favre soap opera, and the only fair thing for Favre to do for his teammate -- "a guy he has to look in the eye on game day," to use the silly football speak -- was to make up his mind, and quickly.
But the message the Vikings' front office -- including coach Brad Childress -- sent to Jackson by allowing this farce to continue for a second consecutive year was the same message it has sent since 2007, Jackson's lone season as the full-time starter: He isn't good enough to win them a championship while the possibility exists that Favre is available to play.
Jackson was a starting quarterback in the NFL for one season. In that season, he started 12 games, averaged 6.5 yards per pass, threw 12 interceptions against nine touchdowns and lost three fumbles. His passer rating was 70.8.
Football is a business, which means Jackson's status is not Favre's responsibility. If Childress believed Jackson was a better option than Favre to win the Super Bowl, Jackson would be the starter and Favre wouldn't be getting a raise.
The Vikings, essentially, were playing with house money. If Favre came back (their preferred option), they would be happy. If he didn't, they believed Jackson could still be a playoff quarterback. They didn't make a move to upgrade at the position beyond waiting for Favre to return.
So in reality, Favre is less a factor in that situation than the narrative suggests. If Jackson is upset, it should be with his front office, which clearly believed it could do better.
A good example of a team taking control of its options and not falling into the talent trap is the Philadelphia Phillies, who took the bold, potentially costly step of trading playoff and World Series hero Cliff Lee to Seattle because general manager Ruben Amaro wasn't sure the organization wanted to pay what Lee could demand on the open market as a free agent and the two sides weren't successful at coming to an agreement on a long-term deal.
Instead of being handcuffed by Lee, Amaro had a plan. He wanted Roy Halladay (his original choice even before he traded for Lee last season) and believed in his ability to make an eventual deal for him. Amaro did that and more, scoring both Halladay (in the offseason) and Roy Oswalt (at last month's trading deadline).
Blaming the player and then complaining that the athlete has too much power is a common line of thinking in professional sports these days because it absolves the organization of its responsibilities and, naturally, of the accompanying accountability. The truth is that it is always easier to blame the player, especially after he has taken off the home team uniform. That way no one -- especially the people in suits who run clubs -- ever has to look in the mirror.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.
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