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Hot Topic: Players don't share fans' loyalty

LeBron James, left, and Dwayne Wade of the

LeBron James, left, and Dwayne Wade of the Miami Heat are introduced during a welcome party at American Airlines Arena. (July 9, 2010) Photo Credit: Getty Images

To Clevelanders, LeBron James might better have gone directly to the airport and hitched a plane ride out of the country with those Russian spies. Just skipped the "Decision" histrionics and South Beach-or-bust specifics and applied for diplomatic asylum.

Fans set fire to James' No. 23 Cavaliers jersey. Team owner Dan Gilbert, in what appeared to be an attempt to identify with such passion, called James' free-agency choice a "cowardly betrayal," then made a direct connection to America's quintessential traitor. Life-size decals of James, produced by Gilbert's Fathead company, were put on sale for one-fifth their value - specifically $17.41, to conjure the year of Benedict Arnold's birth.

James' televised announcement surely was ham-handed, yet the heated reaction it sparked merely tended to emphasize what is a well-established old truth: the one-way street of fan-to-player affection.

Jason Fry, whose freelance endeavors include a popular "Faith and Fear in Flushing" Mets fan blog, touched on the disconnect - fans love star players while star players mostly love having fans - in his regular post at sportsjournalism.org.

In the "horrific handling of Cleveland's heartbreak," Fry noted how James spoke "as if he expected Clevelanders to be grateful for the years he did give them instead of aghast at having a native son humiliate them before a worldwide audience."

Whatever other variables were at play for James, the matter of loyalty repeatedly was cited by his following as the proper fulcrum in his final judgment.

"There are tons of research about how in-groups respond negatively to people who are disloyal, people who leave their own group," said Xavier University psychology professor Christian End, who studies fan behavior. "We want people to be loyal to the group because when they leave, it tells us that they think there's another group that's better than we are. That's threatening to us. Where does that leave us?"

Sports free agency has been around for more than 30 years, and the most in-demand players empowered by it have been taking full advantage, over and over. Fry, in an e-mail to Newsday, wondered if fans' long-ago experience with favorite players lost to trades - when it wasn't the player's choice - "might have been early armor for the modern business of being a sports fan."

He recalled being a "devastated" 8-year-old when the Mets sent Tom Seaver packing. Because there is, he agreed, "the whole tribe thing, and it gets even harder [to be rejected by a favorite player] because we're essentially useless members of the tribe, who don't get to do anything except cheer and gasp and be anxious."

Fans invest heavily of their time, emotion and money, and "they do put a lot of emphasis on loyalty, particularly in team sports where they are especially loyal to the uniform and the organization," End said. "As a fan, if you value a guy because he's part of your group, you make assumptions that he also values loyalty.

"And in instances where the player has, all along, done things to make fans feel the relationship is reciprocal, like James making statements that playing in his hometown of Cleveland always had been a dream, it creates a dissonance."

Fry's own experience, he said, tells him that a gulf exists between fans and athletes even in star players' formative years, when schoolboy jocks "aren't fans of the sports they play in the same way fans are - this is what they do, and they regard it more as a craft than as an entertainment." Young players, he suspects, admire their favorite pros "more as a working model than as an idol. So maybe we're wired differently from the get-go."

And, last week, there was the self-proclaimed king, seeming to tell his Ohio subjects the opposite of what Evita told Argentina: I didn't keep my promise, now keep your distance.

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