Recently, especially here in Chicago, there seems to be this growing sentiment about the role professional athletes must play when it comes to loyalty. And it's a narrow definition: Loyalty to the teams they play for; loyalty to the teams that pay them.
Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng is at the center of a sentiment that extends far beyond his particular dilemma.
See, Deng is hurt. He has a wrist injury that needs rest, followed possibly by surgery. If done now, that surgery would have time to heal and make him available for the beginning of the 2012-13 NBA season, a season that his team will begin without Derrick Rose, the 2011 MVP and the franchise's savior.
If the Bulls are to remain an elite team in the NBA, as they have been the past two seasons (finishing with the league's best record), they'll need Deng to do next season what he did this past season: save them until Rose returns.
According to many, Deng owes the Bulls that.
But there's this event this summer called the Olympics. And Deng, who is from the Sudan but is a citizen of England, wants to participate for England. He feels a sense of obligation to do so because he believes England saved the lives of his family as they fled Africa when he was a child.
Plus, this is the first time since the Games of the XIV Olympiad (1948, when London played the host as it will in July) that the British have had a basketball team in the competition. And who is Team Great Britain's Michael Jordan?
"What people don't understand," he said this week with a tinge of irritation in his voice, "when we were in Egypt, we were refugees. My family and I were homeless. For five years, out of all of the countries in the world that my father was contacting, the only one that took us in was England. So how do I not participate [in the Olympics]? If I don't play for them, knowing that I had the opportunity to, explain to me, how am I supposed to live with that for the rest of my life?"
So there's a deep sense of loyalty Deng has to this (his) country that goes beyond collecting a check or earning a living playing professional basketball. To a degree, Deng owes London his life. And he wants to show his appreciation. Return the favor. Say "thank you."
Yet some believe his loyalty should first and foremost be to those who are allowing him the privilege of being an acting participant in the NBA. To those who sign his check.
Have the surgery now, sacrifice the Olympics. Do not sacrifice any part of the NBA season. You owe that to the Bulls. You owe that to the people who are paying you. You hear it on radio shows, read it in columns, hear whispers that it's a feeling shared from within the Bulls' organization, which apparently isn't ready to let him play without a discussion.
Since Deng publicly said, "I'm going to play in the Olympics," I've heard many times how disloyal he is being by playing basketball in a once-in-a-lifetime event for reasons that go far deeper than the game. I've heard people -- especially in the media -- refer to him as selfish and blatantly disloyal, and sometimes worse.
Why now? Why now, when a professional athlete is doing something that is actually noble, is there a problem?
All we ever hear and talk about as so-called journalists and analysts of sports is the danger associated with athletes placing money ahead of everything else in their lives. We hear how self-serving, self-important and self-absorbed today's athletes are and are growing up to be. We hear how misguided their priorities and principles are and how egomania runs rampant through all sports. But all of a sudden those lines of thought don't apply for Deng's situation?
All of a sudden an athlete is supposed to think his paycheck is more important than his patriotism?
Money should never trump the arc or narrative of someone's life. An employer should not have the power over an individual's participation in events of greater importance to personal history. To suggest anything different, to me, is extremely irrational and unconscionable. The "He Who Pays You Rules You" way of thought is borderline dictatorial. A slavery mentality. No business controls or owns an employee's life.
In this case the sentiment is not necessarily rooted in race -- we've heard similar calls in the past for Dirk Nowitzki and Manu Ginobili, among others, to skip international play -- as much as it is about asking a man to subjugate his personal decisions to the needs of an NBA franchise and fan base and questioning how he could even think about challenging (or disrespecting, in critics' minds) their primacy in his life.
When I spoke with Deng about this, he wasn't as upset with the backlash that he's been receiving as I was.
With his loyalty being questioned, he simply laid out the facts. First, his loyalty to the Bulls was never in question when he was told by three different team doctors during the season that he should shut down and have surgery immediately, but he decided to continue to play for the sake of the team, knowing that, as he said, "We had a real chance at winning a championship." Second, if he decides to even have the surgery (he's 70-80 percent sure thus far that he might not have to after postseason rehab) after the Olympics in August, recovery is three months and he'll miss a maximum of maybe 10 games.
More than anything, Deng should be applauded and lauded. His resolve to stand for something more than just a paycheck or a contract, which he has honored and will continue to honor, is what other athletes (and human beings) should aspire to. I would have thought the majority of people would think this way and have his back on this.
Because at the center of this is loyalty. Who should an NBA player be loyal to?
In "The Trial and Death of Socrates," Plato wrote of the depths of true loyalty. Socrates bases his entire defense -- which eventually meant his life -- on his loyalty to what he believed was to him his truth. It was something he was willing to die for. To Socrates, loyalty had no limits.
But philosopher Thomas Hobbes looked at loyalty differently. He believed that people could have more than one loyalty and might, at some point in their lives, be forced to have to choose between them. He believed that loyalty to "the ruler" stops only when continued loyalty would result in death.
The NBA did not save Luol Deng's life. A $71 million contract did not save his life. Basketball in America did not save his life. England did. For him, there's really no choice to be made. He's Socrates. His loyalty -- and his willingness to honor the country by playing in the Olympics -- is right where it is supposed to be. Those who question it need to question their own.