There is a conundrum that is at the heart of any labor dispute between the NFL and its players – both in the past and potentially in the future: Who do the fans love?
There is no better case study for this anomaly than the saga of Brett Favre. There are countless Wisconsinites who have since regretted getting Favre-related tattoos. The huge No. 4 back-tat is bad enough. Any dude with a "Brett" arm-tat is much worse – unless said tat-bearer is in a committed relationship with someone named Brett.
Therein lay the problem. In a society where everything is disposable, the allegiance of fans is, in the short-term, associated with a collection of players. In the long-term, it is with the franchise. It is that difference that is sine qua non of battles past and future in the NFL.
Vikings fans are giddy about the potential of the new Sharrif in town, the X-Man and it was no coincidence that Cordarrelle Patterson was given a recycled No. 84. The fans still have happy memories of Percy Harvin and Antoine Winfield, but, as time goes by, those memories get blurrier. It speaks more to the memories associated with Pat Williams, Matt Birk, Steve Hutchinson, E.J. Henderson and Sidney Rice. All of them were beloved players, but, as more time has passed, their contributions fade in the memory bank. Fans hold on to what they want to and discard the rest. Imagine how it is for players of eras past?
Somewhere, a guy in a nursing home proudly wears an autographed Jim Lash jersey. Why? Because he's a Vikings fan. He may temporarily be an ardent fan of an individual player, but, in the end, his allegiance is to the color of the jersey, not the name on the back.
There are thousands of people who owned Randy Moss jerseys. The same goes for Favre, Percy Harvin, Daunte Culpepper, Cris Carter, John Randle, etc. Those jerseys only come out on special occasions. The fan allegiance comes in many forms – whether at the stadium, at fan events like the draft party at Mall of America Field, at training camp or at a local watering hole – but it remains constant in one significant respect. It's the color that matters, not necessarily the number on both sides or the name on the back.
Being a fan is inherent to loyalty to a franchise. You can live in California, Florida, Maine or Kuwait and, if you were brought up as a Vikings fan, odds are you remain a Vikings fan. The players are the reason that fans remain fans, but, in the end, the loyalty is to the organization.
The allegiance fans have toward players runs deep. My 11-year-old daughter was heartbroken when Harvin was traded because, for reasons that were her own, she had picked him as her favorite player. It may have been that he was cute. The first few days following the trade were tough. The funny thing is that, after the draft, she wanted to know about the "new boys" that were coming in … and announced over dinner that Phil Loadholt – or, as she calls him, Philly Cheese Steak – is her new favorite player.
And life goes on.
When players refer to the NFL as "a business," they know from where they speak. A player can be beloved by the fan base, but, in the end, it's brand loyalty that trumps all. Players are the commodity. The NFL is the business and, whether it's the Vikings, the Packers, the Steelers or the other 29 NFL teams, the loyalty of the fan base is to the 1/32nd of The Shield in which they inherit de facto ownership. Players come. Players go. The love remains.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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