Critics of professional sports (or people who just don’t get the mindset of hardcore fans) always ask the same question the Joker posed in The Dark Knight:
“Why so serious?”
Why do you care that a millionaire mercenary who happens to wear your team’s uniform signed a contract elsewhere for a boatload of money? Didn’t he do the same thing to fans in (insert another city’s name) to come to your team? Why would a fan destroy the jersey of a player who rebuffed a hometown offer at free agency to move elsewhere?
Why did a Canadian MP stand in the House of Commons in 1988, demanding the government intervene in the infamous trade that sent national hero Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles? And why did many in Toronto lose their collective minds when the Raptors announced that their best player ever, DeMar DeRozan, was heading to San Antonio for a potentially better player in Kawhi Leonard?
Unless you’re being paid to have an opinion on the story, why would the top 10 trending topics on Twitter last week relate to an exchange of athletes who make more money in a month than most will earn in a lifetime?
As a lame Toronto Maple Leafs branding slogan put it a few years ago: It’s “The Passion That Unites Us All.”
Without getting into the technical metrics of the trade, because, frankly, I’d have no idea what I’m talking about, I was intrigued by that “passion.” Fathers took to Twitter to lambaste the Raptors for making their children cry. “Tell them to suck it up,” I thought to myself.
Hardcore basketball fans who understood the Leonard signing was probably a great opportunity for Toronto lamented losing a player who constantly said he would like to retire a Raptor. I don’t follow the NBA much, but I have read columns by some pretty cynical, crusty sportswriters who, while acknowledging the positive aspect of the trade, felt truly sad that a class guy like DeRozan was leaving the 416.
WATCH: Looking back at DeMar DeRozan’s career with Toronto Raptors
In my lifetime, I have observed the business of sports change. All the leagues used to treat their players as indentured assets. Contracts paid relatively well, but the owners, with the backing of the courts, were puppet masters.
Then Alan Eagleson arrived along with competition from the WHA and gave the players autonomy and power. MLB’s Curt Flood refused to report to a new team and, after a court battle, baseball’s straitjacket of a reserve clause fell apart, leading to the era of free agency.
Add salary caps to the mix, and what used to be a schoolyard game of “need him, need him, got him,” has become the athletic version of corporate mergers and acquisitions. Sports discussions are almost always dominated now by cap room and years left in the contract. It’s so gauche.
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The Tweets about the kids crying over DeRozan reminded me of a Sunday night in April 1970. It was the last day of the NHL regular season. I was nine years old and a Habs fan. The Leafs were already eliminated and Montreal was in Chicago. They needed a win or at least five goals in defeat to move ahead of the Rangers into the playoffs.
Down 5-2 with nine minutes left in the third, coach Claude Ruel pulled the goalie for an extra attacker. The Habs surrendered five empty-net Blackhawk goals to lose 10-2 and, for the first (but not last) time ever, it was an all-American Stanley Cup playoff.
It was pre-cable, so the game wasn’t on TV. I was already in bed. But my dad quietly came into the bedroom, sat on my bed and told me the bad news. I started to cry. I didn’t even live in Montreal, and to this day I have never understood why I was a Canadiens fan growing up. Neither did my dad. But he kissed my head, said get back to sleep, and told me there’s always next year.
He never once told me to “suck it up.” I guess he understood my passion.
Mike Stafford is co-host of The Morning Show on Global News Radio 640 Toronto.