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August 21, 2017 | by  | in Sports |
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Athlete Autonomy and Fan Outrage

Unlike most lucrative career paths, say, for example, lawyering, athletes are often restricted as to where and who they work for. In New Zealand, a rugby player cannot play in another country (on a contract that is likely more lucrative) and be eligible for the All Blacks.

In the United States there are a number of restrictions that vary between the sports. Common is the use of a draft. The draft is conceived as a way to create “parity” between teams in that the order is determined by giving the previous year’s worst team the first pick and the best team the last pick. The incoming athletes, in effect, have no choice as to where they will spend the first years of their careers. If these restrictions were applied in contexts other than sports, they’d likely be deemed problematic, illegal even, in the obvious restrictions it places on labour. Just imagine the most struggling law firm getting first pick of the top law graduates.

Yet for most fans, these conventions are rarely questioned and seem even logical, so when a top athlete enacts their quite basic right to choose where they will work and live, they are often met with moral indignation. In 2010 LeBron left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, who selected him out of high school with the first pick in the 2003 draft, for the Miami Heat. Fans filmed themselves burning his jersey, while the billionaire owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers penned an open letter calling LeBron’s move a “cowardly betrayal.” “The Letter”, as it has been dubbed, is an icon of the ugly, moralising side of sport fandom and a deeply unsettling insight into the level of entitlement some fans and owners feel toward athletes. It sucks when your favourite athlete moves, but that is the nature of fandom — it’s irrational and at the mercy of so many factors outside of our control.

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