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It's Just Business: An Inside Look At Loyalty In Pro Sports

Ray Allen left the Celtics for the Heat. Does that make him a traitor? Dan Grunfeld answers that question while also explaining why loyalty in sports is not always as cut and dry as it may appear.

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Remember when LeBron James sat in a chair at a Boys and Girls Club in Connecticut and announced to the world that he was leaving Cleveland to take his talents to South Beach? Man, that did not go over well! Seriously, people did not like that at all! Jerseys were burned, names were called, venom was spewed. Virtually everything about LeBron was questioned in the aftermath of The Decision, but nothing more than his loyalty.

Like nearly everyone I know, I thought The Decision was dreadful in its execution, but my feeling has always been that, while LeBron was wildly inconsiderate toward Cleveland that night, he was not technically disloyal to the organization. Even though he certainly could have (and should have) handled the announcement without giving Cleveland a proverbial kick to the crotch on national television, he was still an unrestricted free agent at the time, meaning -- whether you like him or not -- that he had earned the right to play for whichever team he wanted in whichever city he pleased.

It would have been portrayed as a tremendous act of loyalty if he had stayed with his hometown club, but ultimately, he's a grown man with friends and family, preferences and priorities, and he's entitled to make his own decisions.

As a pro basketball player, I have an insider's perspective on loyalty as it relates to athletes and the business of sports. Loyalty is a word that is thrown around a lot in sports, and it's one of the best qualities that a person or organization can have. Yet, while it's honorable and commendable to stick by the people who stick by you, that can't always be the case in professional athletics, often through no fault of either party and with no treachery on either end.

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Sports are complex, and while it's easy to throw out blanket statements questioning people's loyalty, it's usually not quite as simple as that. In my opinion, athletes are labeled as disloyal far too easily in this day and age, based on unrealistic expectations that fans and media have for them and their futures.

What is missing here is the undeniable reality that pro sports is a business on both sides of the equation, and more importantly, that this is not a bad thing.

I know from firsthand experience that, just like LeBron made the decision that was right for him, organizations will almost always make the decisions that best serve their interests, and that they are in the position to do so far more often than athletes. Teams will cut or trade a player in a second if it will benefit the organization, and that's the way it should be, because it's any business' responsibility and prerogative to improve their product.

If there's a transaction that a team believes will achieve that goal, either now or in the future, then they should go ahead without apology. And, as I see it, athletes should be allowed to do the same without the intense scorn and scarlet "T" being levied upon them.

Like many fans, I enjoy when a player remains with the same team for years, and likewise when an organization retains a player through good and bad. And, though I don't like super-teams and think they cheapen the competition of the game, it still doesn't mean that those who head to greener pastures when they have the opportunity are disloyal. In the end, with so many millions on the line in the NBA and so many personal and professional factors at play, a team has to do what's best for them (while hopefully acting with respect and decency), and similarly, a player's ultimate responsibility should be to himself and his family.

Along these lines, I have been surprised in the last few days at the extremely personal backlash that Ray Allen has received for his decision not to re-sign with the Celtics and to instead take less money to merge his talents with LeBron's in South Beach. Since his decision to join the Celtics' biggest rival became public, Celtics fans have denounced Ray on blogs and crushed him on Twitter. Just search "Judas Shuttlesworth" and see what you find.

Even a fellow NBA player, Jarrett Jack, questioned Ray's loyalty on Twitter: "Am I wrong for thinking ray allen is a traitor for signing with his rival team the heat? Tell me what you think!!!!!!!"

Well, @dangrunfeld20 thinks Jack is wrong, and while I understand why he'd ask the question, and I certainly understand why emotional Celtics fans are outraged by Ray's departure to Miami, I think it's unfair to call Ray a traitor. Forget the fact that the Celtics have reportedly tried to trade Ray at the last two trade deadlines. Forget the fact that Ray was slotted to come off the bench behind Avery Bradley next season. Forget the fact that Ray supposedly had a fractured relationship with Rajon Rondo. And forget the fact that the Celtics signed Jason Terry, an established player who plays Ray's position, before Ray left for Miami.

All these would be reason enough to explain his move, but the truth is, we don't even need to go there.

It might be easy to assume that we know the ins-and-outs of Ray's decision, but at the end of the day, Ray Allen is a 36-year-old man with a wife and kids, and we can't possibly know what personal and professional factors matter to him most at this stage of his life. All that matters is that Ray was in a position to evaluate where he wanted to continue his career by whatever criteria he deemed most important to him and his family -- winning, lifestyle, climate, comfort, whatever -- and he picked Miami.

For Celtics fans, that sucks, and I can see how it feels like a slight. When a player means as much to a team as Ray did to the Celtics, he becomes an integral part of the fabric of that organization and community. And in this particular instance, the "Big Three" Celtics were an especially tight-knit group over the years, embracing the all-for-one slogan "Ubuntu" and winning games by playing together, like a team, for a common goal.

It's understandable that passionate Boston fans are mad at Ray for breaking up that dynamic, especially to join their biggest rivals for less money. At the same time, though, fans can be fickle, and their adoration cannot be the basis of important life decisions. If Ray had been a 14 percent three-point shooter for Boston instead of a 45 percent shooter, would the fans still love him and want him back? Would he expect the same type of unconditional loyalty from them that they are demanding from him? Probably not.

NBA Free Agency: Insane money for average talent.

Surely, this was a tough decision to make, and the fact that he took far less money in Miami shows that there were serious factors pulling him toward the Heat, but if anyone has really earned the right to do what's best for himself when the time comes, isn't it Ray Allen? He represents everything that is good about the NBA: he's a great player, a tremendous person and the best type of role model that the league has to offer. He is a consummate professional and a well-rounded human being, one who is smart, humble and hard-working. He treats everyone with respect. I say these things because I've known Ray Allen since I was 15 years old, and he's exactly the great guy that he appears to be.

Is he now suddenly a villainous traitor because he had the opportunity to make a decision for the good of his career and his family that might not be popular?

I would imagine that Ray cherishes the time he spent in Beantown, and the years he fought alongside Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo. Those four were a great group, and they're all warriors, but the truth is, nothing lasts forever. Ray's departure does make the Heat scarier, and it does make Celtics' fans everywhere wicked pissed, but it does not make Ray Allen a traitor.

Loyalty is one of the most important qualities that a human being can have, but in pro sports, there are two sides to that coin. NBA players for the most part have no control over what team drafts them, over when and where their teams trade them, and over when and why their teams cut them. Yes, they are extraordinarily well-compensated for this uncertainty, but this is the life they live, so when they have finally earned the right to have some say over their personal and professional situation, is it really fair to blame them for seizing that opportunity, even if certain people or fan bases might disagree? I don't think so, even in a case as extreme as LeBron's.

If we don't realistically expect teams and fans to operate with "blind loyalty," why is it alright to hold players to this standard -- especially in a business where loyalty and disloyalty aren't always as black and white as they may appear?

When it comes to Ray Allen, one of the stand-out players and people in the NBA, it's definitely not fair to blame him for doing what's best for him and his family, especially after 16 years in the NBA. This reaction is emotional and passionate, and it makes sense that Boston fans are peeved because they think that Ray owes them something, but that's just not the case. I wouldn't be mad at the player for that; instead, I'd be mad at the game.

It's not personal, it's not disloyal; it's just business. For all involved.

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