By LARRY WEISMAN, USA TODAY
Looking for loyalty in sports today?
Try the Hall of Fame, where it molders with the other relics of bygone times. Or the deepest corners of the imagination, where the concept was conjured, nurtured and thought to be almost real.
Ricky Williams quits a week before training camp, leaving the Miami Dolphins without their best offensive player. Eddie George sweats blood for the Tennessee Titans for eight years and is released when he won't take a pay cut. Carlos Boozer leads the Cleveland Cavaliers to believe he will sign a new contract and then does -- with the Utah Jazz. Roger Clemens announces his retirement, accepts the lovely parting gifts that come during his farewell tour with the New York Yankees, then joins the Houston Astros.
Loyalty. In sports? Where a handshake is followed by a quick recount of the fingers? No such thing. Forget the clichés about unity and family.
"There has never been loyalty," says Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association. "When you can't play, they'll get rid of you. A guy gets hurt in practice, and they move the drill and keep going. That's the lesson players learn, and some learn it later than others. This is a business."
Upshaw played offensive line for 16 seasons for the Oakland Raiders (1967-82), 15 of them alongside Art Shell. Both are in the Hall of Fame. Players stayed put in those days, served at the team's pleasure, worked when and where they were told.
Then came free agency, the explosion of television revenues, the crossbreeding of sports and entertainment.
"If there was any loyalty when I played, it was because you couldn't go anywhere else. Now players have choices, like everyone else who is employed," Upshaw says.
Teammates Feel Hurt
Ah, teams and players. Remember North Dallas Forty and the locker room scene, where a large, angry lineman rips a team official and yells, "Every time we say it's a game, you say it's a business! Every time we say it's a business, you say it's a game!"
Some things never change.
The Titans, squeezed tight against the NFL's $80.6 million salary cap, decided that George, their all-time leading rusher, no longer merited a $4.25 million salary. He refused a pay cut. He's gone, now a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
"This isn't new to 2004," Titans general manager Floyd Reese says. "People don't remember Johnny Unitas in a Chargers uniform, they don't remember Joe Namath in a Rams uniform, they don't remember Tony Dorsett in a Broncos uniform, or Earl Campbell in a Saints uniform. The list goes on and on."
Like any quickie divorce, Williams' parting with the Dolphins hurt other family members -- in this case, teammates -- who had some expectation of common purpose. They trained together, toiled together in the South Florida heat and hoped to win a Super Bowl together. Now he's gone.
Asked during a news conference Sunday if he felt he deserved better from Williams, Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt replied: "He owes himself, and he owes those teammates. That's the guys he needs to be concerned with, not me."
Center Seth Mckinney told reporters in Miami that Williams was "extremely selfish" for quitting "when we needed him most." Many simply questioned the timing. Had Williams exited in early spring, the Dolphins could have drafted a replacement or shopped the free-agent market. Instead, he told Wannstedt he could no longer generate the emotional will to play after George signed with the Cowboys and the Titans scarfed up Antowain Smith.
"While the timing was unfortunate, it was the imminence of training camp" that made Williams act when he did, agent Leigh Steinberg says.
So he didn't put the organization first. But what about the fellas, the other guys in pads and helmets?
"Down in the locker room," Dolphins general manager Rick Spielman says, "it's teammates owing teammates."
They want to win. As do the fans.
Some have asked the Dolphins for their money back on their season tickets. Others feel a pang as they drive down the Florida Turnpike and see billboards of the NFL's leading rusher in 2002 stiff-arming a New York Jets defender. Still more post rants on Web sites. But there's no consensus as to the right and wrong of Williams deciding to take his life another way.
"In a sense, I think one reason we're all so upset with Ricky is that he's able to say 'Hakuna Matata' and just head off. Good for him," says Roland Lazenby, professor of communications at Virginia Tech. "Given the level of financial independence that professional athletes have, it's a wonder that more of them don't do this."
Paul Swangard wonders what could happen if they do. He oversees sports marketing studies at the University of Oregon and sees Williams' sudden walk as one more insult to the customers.
"We just keep waiting for the fans to say enough is enough," he says.
Not all take umbrage at Williams' blow-off of his employer (if not his co-workers).
"I don't think he owes the organization anything. I don't think he owes me anything as a fan. I can do whatever I want. Why can't he?" asks Bob Covella, vice president of a manufacturing firm in Chicago and a self-described "sports enthusiast" who attends about 30 games a year (baseball, basketball, football, hockey). "The only people he owes are his teammates, and right now they are screwed."
True. But they're probably better off not having one among them who could not completely commit to the task.
"I don't feel he let his teammates down. If he doesn't want to be there, then now is the time to let them know," says Barry Sanders, third on the NFL's all-time rushing list and soon to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. "They have about six weeks before they have to play a game. By the time they play the first game, they'll know who they can count on."
His is the voice of experience. He played 10 years with the Detroit Lions, and on the summer day in 1999 on which he was to report to training camp, he vanished silently into retirement.
Gone. Outta here. No long goodbyes to his teammates.
As elusive as loyalty itself.
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This is why I refuse to buy a replica jersey, only throwback ones. I do have a Bruce Matthews Titans jersey. He did play only for Houston/Tennessee.