Where Is Loyalty Today?
For some, today is a red-letter day in American sports. It is national signing day at colleges and universities across the land for college football. The only reason I welcome this date is to see an end to all of the hoopla that college football recruiting has become. There is a racing tie-in to this, so bear with me.
Although I consider myself a huge college football fan, I never paid too much attention to recruiting. I don’t underestimate its importance, as it is the life’s-blood of any college football program. But I was completely turned off in 1987, while living in Memphis. There was a local recruit named Xavier Crawford, or the "X-Man" as he had dubbed himself. He had narrowed his choices down to Memphis State University (now University of Memphis) and Ole Miss.
Back then; it was pretty much unheard of for a college recruit to call a press conference. The X-Man did, however – when it was time to announce his choice. He pulled two caps out of a worn-out looking brown paper bag – one for Ole Miss, the other for Memphis State. He held one in each hand for a moment as if weighing his decision. He then dropped the Ole Miss cap on the ground and stomped on it several times, as he placed the Memphis State cap atop his mindless head. Xavier Crawford went on to achieve fame and notoriety in Memphis. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for his accomplishments on the gridiron. You can read about his latest exploits here.
Although I had no allegiance to either school, it was at that point that I vowed to never follow college recruiting. Twenty-three years later, I still don’t. It has evolved into a circus that puts the entire spotlight on a seventeen year-old kid who is basically ill equipped to handle the fame.
College basketball is worse. When you look at three freshman starters for the University of Kentucky that a year ago had committed to the aforementioned University of Memphis, you see three individuals who are there strictly for themselves. None of them are there because they suddenly learned of the history and lore that is Kentucky basketball. Instead, they followed coach John Calipari from Memphis, and are there to be mostly “one and done” before heading to the riches of the NBA.
This is what sports have become. I read comments on this and other sites talking about how today’s IndyCar driver can’t measure up to the drivers of yesteryear. Since I have a deep respect for the Indy 500 that I grew up with in the sixties, I’ve probably been guilty of such comments myself. However, given today’s “me-first” attitude among overpaid athletes, I would still take today’s IndyCar driver over any other professional athletes.
Loyalty is pretty much dead in sports. We see it every day in the NFL where a player gives his all to a team for ten or more years, then when he sustains an injury in the service of the team – they are unceremoniously kicked to the curb (i.e. Tennessee Titan Keith Bulluck).
Racing is also a business. In the same year of the X-Man (1987), Roger Penske was faced with a decision where he had to make a driver change. The odd man out was Al Unser. But during the Month of May, Penske driver Danny Ongais crashed in practice and could not race in the 500. Penske turned to “Big Al” who put his hurt and frustration aside, and accepted the ride. The result was Al’s fourth Indy 500 victory. He realized that Penske had simply made a business decision. Al also realized that it would not be a smart business decision to pass up a Penske ride for the Indianapolis 500.
In 2008, we were treated to what seems like a nice show of loyalty from a driver. Tony Kanaan was pursued by Chip Ganassi to replace his former AGR teammate Dan Wheldon in the No. 10 Target car. Although it was an excellent opportunity given the fact that Ganassi cars have won the last two Izod IndyCar Series championships, Kanaan decided that his loyalties were with Andretti-Green Racing.
Kanaan was plucked by Michael Andretti from a relatively obscure career in CART where in five years he had driven for three teams, had one win and an average season finish of twelfth in points. Andretti had just bought Team Green and moved it from CART to the IRL in 2003 and planned to build his team around Kanaan and Dario Franchitti. When Franchitti left the team after the 2007 season, Kanaan was left as the elder statesman.
Kanaan won the IRL championship in 2004 for AGR. In fact, AGR won the championship three out of four years between 2004 and 2007. But things turned south for the team in 2008 as they only amassed two victories – Kanaan at Richmond and Danica Patrick in Japan. When presented with the opportunity to join the current top team in the league, most think that Kanaan should have made the prudent business decision and jumped at it. Instead, Kanaan showed loyalty to Michael Andretti. So far that loyalty has been repaid with multiple suspension failures and being set ablaze twice by his crew in 2009. I am hoping that perseverance and loyalty eventually pays off for Tony Kanaan.
So when you are thinking that today’s IndyCar drivers are overpaid creampuffs that couldn’t take on today’s version of an aging AJ Foyt in a fist fight – just look around at today’s business environment in sports. I know from experience that today’s IndyCar drivers are the most accessible, fan-friendly and down-to-earth athletes out there today. I dare say that the kids holding press conferences and stepping on hats today care nothing about loyalty – just what’s going to be in it for them.