What Do Athletes Owe Fans?

Gregory Shamus

In lieu of a recent controversial article posted after Evgeni Malkin didn't sit for interviews following practice, a question arises: what do athletes "owe" fans, if anything?

In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, Chris Bradford from Beaver County Times published a controversial article that completely flipped Pens fans' mood from thrilled to annoyed. Ah yes, you know hockey is upon us when Evgeni Malkin is criticized before Ryan Mill can announce his name to a packed Consol Energy Center.

I'm not going to spend time bashing Bradford's article mainly because the guys at The Pensblog took care of that better than I ever could. However, I'm the type of person who likes to pull worth from seemingly worthless pieces. Bradford brings up an interesting argument that's worth discussing:

What do hockey players, even athletes in general, owe us?

Let's start with Bradford (last time, I promise):

Malkin doesn't owe an apology for speaking with an accent. His English is way better than my Russian or yours. But he does owe a better effort than this one.

We have one vote for players owing us some effort to give quotes, but clearly Bradford believes players surrender their constitutional right to remain silent when confronted by reporters.

So what do players owe the rest of us? Other than fulfilling their contracts (which they don't do for the fans), they owe us nothing. However, I think this idea can be traced to very simple traditions and mindsets we have in place today.

The habit of talking about players like we own them, like they play their sport solely for our entertainment, has become more obvious to me as of late. Don't get me wrong, sports are meant to entertain an audience, but at what point do we, the fans, no longer matter? After all, we aren't Romans in the Colosseum watching the gladiators fight to the death. I make this, albeit extreme, example because the source of the misconception boils down to these players' lives not revolving around our approval and if we "are entertained" by their actions on the field/rink/court/diamond.

The most popular instance of fan ownership I've seen is the idea that because fans invest in their favorite teams via merchandise and ticket purchases, players have to answer to fans as if we're the boss. While we do bring in a good chunk of the moolah, players are employed by the organization, not the fans. Ultimately, this is why they don't owe fans anything.

It's even silly to think athletes play for the fans (to some extent, of course). What the Columbus Blue Jackets do on the ice doesn't have less meaning because the fans don't have the same passion and energy as Montreal's. Most athletes play their sport for personal glory and fulfillment. They sacrifice themselves for their fellow teammates, not for our pleasure. You can find a similar example in our soldiers, many of whom serve not to answer the president's orders or even protect our country, but for the guy next to him.

In extreme circumstances, some crazy fans can feel ownership through something as simple as fantasy sports. Players, dumbed down to a number, now "belong" to [insert fan name]'s team which makes it easy for [fan] to play the demanding coach. Again, this is only in extreme circumstances, but we've all seen the angry tirades from those who had a bad week in fantasy.

For the sake of more fan involvement, sports culture grants us an element of control and access over athletes, including the ability to provide round-the-clock coverage. So when we receive anything less than what we're used to? Outrageous!

In Malkin's circumstance, landing interviews will become frustrating for *some* reporters because there are players like Sidney Crosby, Pascal Dupuis, and Brooks Orpik who spend time with the media until all questions are answered. This is a great way to spoil the media because of their availability and that trickles down to the fans. No contract states players are required to answer questions at any given time. They do it because they understand other people's jobs depend on what they have to say. Reporters need to write articles. The front office needs to sell tickets.

Fans are the heartbeat of every sport and they add a special dimension the average job doesn't have. But in the grand scheme of things, fans aren't as important to players as we like to think we are.
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