Following the 2009-10 NBA season, LeBron James became a free agent. His choice, to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers (the team who drafted him, and for whom he played his first 7 NBA seasons) in favor of the Miami Heat, sent shockwaves through American sports. LeBron was widely criticized for the move, which saw him jump ship to join fellow all-stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to create the “Big 3” in Miami, more for the manner in which he left Cleveland, and less because he left Cleveland. LeBron held an hour-long ESPN special, all culminating in the announcement that he was “taking [his] talents to South Beach.” This display of arrogance, by publicly breaking the heart of an entire city, was beyond comprehension for many, even in American sports, and the backlash that followed was largely justified. On Wednesday July 4, 2012, Robin van Persie released what was, in effect, his own “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” on his website, when he proclaimed to the world that he would not be signing a contract extension with Arsenal. In doing so, he became the second Arsenal captain in as many summers to force an exit from the team, and caused most Arsenal supporters equal parts intense anger and severe depression. As LeBron had, he proclaimed for all the world to hear that he was turning his back on the fans who had supported him through the good times (37 goals in 2011-12) and the bad (missing long stretches because of injury in each of his first 7 seasons with the club). Thanks to the wonders of satellite radio, I heard the news over the radio as I was driving to the store in the late-morning over-100-degree heat, in preparation for my Independence Day celebrations scheduled for later in the day. As the talkSPORT radio personality read the statement to me, all I could get out was a defeated “fuck”, which drew the attention of my lady friend, who was riding along with me. “What is it?” she asked me, and I told her that an Arsenal player was leaving the team and that I had just heard the news. As a bit of background, my lady is not a big sports fan, and only nominally supports Arsenal in that when they win, my mood on the day is better than it is when they do not, but she must have sensed that this was a big deal, because she followed up by asking me which player it was. When I responded “van Persie” even she knew what that meant. “Oh no, seriously?” she replied, and I felt the same way. Seriously? Again? You have got to be kidding me. To be clear, I was not surprised that it was happening, but until the moment comes, do you ever really know if you are prepared? I certainly was not prepared for this. Not now, not this way.
I spent the better part of the afternoon contemplating what this meant for the club. The greatly lessened price Arsenal will get in return for him because of his big fucking mouth. What this means for Walcott. What the starting lineup will look like when the season begins. What should be done to fix the pit that was growing in my stomach. But most of all I just kept thinking about sports, and modern athletes, and loyalty, or more properly the utter lack of loyalty that the modern athlete has. This brings me back to LeBron James, and the state of the modern athlete. I’m sorry to get so basketball-heavy with my analogies today, but that’s what is working the best for me, so I’m going to stick with it. What bothered me most about LeBron fleeing the Cleve for sunny South Beach & the cozy embrace of two fellow superstars was not as much the way he spurned Cleveland, but the fact that he was trying to take the easy way to a championship. This is not what the sports heroes of my youth did. When Michael Jordan was early in his career and he couldn’t get over the Pistons hump, when his Bulls were beaten in the NBA playoffs by the Bad Boys in 1987, 1988, & 1989, Jordan didn’t jump ship on Chicago and try to team up with Patrick Ewing in New York to try to ensure he would win a championship. When Michael Jordan ran into a wall that was keeping him from a championship, he worked harder and got better and made himself great, and eventually he won. That was the mindset of the pro athlete that I grew up idolizing. Jordan would have never thought of leaving the Bulls to try and team up with other superstars to guarantee him a championship every year, and none of those other stars ever thought of teaming up with Michael, because they were focused on beating the best, not simply having the best carry them along to glory. LeBron and the Heat’s Big 3 got their NBA title this year, but does anyone really think LeBron is a greater player now than two years ago when he left Cleveland? Someone probably does, “it’s all about the hardware” they might say, but I don’t. To me, LeBron took the easy way out, he chose to join up with others who could carry him along to glory, rather than working harder to achieve it on his own. Sure, LeBron hoisted the trophy this year, but I’m still not impressed, because to me, that win was cheap, he got there by a shortcut, and I don’t respect him like I would have had he done it in Cleveland, for the fans that loved him all the way up his rise, unlike the front-running Miami fans who only back a winner. Watching LeBron win the NBA finals felt very much like watching Samir Nasri win the Premier League. Nasri isn’t a better player now than he was last year, in fact I would argue he is worse because he spent so much time on the bench, yet there he was getting his medal for winning the league, because he hitched his wagon to a front-runner & in doing so took his shortcut to glory, just like LeBron did, and just like van Persie is trying to do now. Robin may get his silverware elsewhere, but those who are paying attention won’t be impressed, because the real accomplishment is becoming the best yourself, not just riding the coattails of the best to success.
The only loyalty in sports today is that of the fan to their club. Everyone else involved is a mercenary, as LeBron showed us in 2010, Nasri showed us in 2011, and van Persie has shown us in 2012. I wasn’t surprised when I heard that van Persie is refusing to re-sign, but I was saddened. I had hoped that I was wrong, and that not all athletes were mercenaries. I had held out hope that there might be a little loyalty left in our captain, but I was clearly wrong. At the end of the day, as supporters, we pull for the club not the players. The club goes on even when players leave. I’ll still be excited when the season kicks off in August, and I’ll live and die with the Arsenal all the way through May. To the current Arsenal captain, I say good riddance. My only hope is that Arsenal’s next captain is nothing like the last two, as I’m not sure I have it in me to write this article again next year, for the third summer in a row.