To many players, the NFL is often a business, to the fans, it's always personal

Joe Sargent

Week 1 of the NFL free agency period saw many players around the league--including several Steelers--sign with other clubs, reminding us all that, while the fans may care very deeply about their favorite players, the athletes often take a business-like approach to their careers.

At 4 p.m. March 12, the new NFL year kicked off with the start of unrestricted free agency. Within hours, several players signed deals with new clubs, leaving their old teams (and fans) behind.

Like a lot of fans around the NFL, Steelers fans witnessed a lot of changes to their favorite team, and if there was ever a reminder that the NFL is a business above all else, Week 1 of free agency was a huge dose of reality.

When it comes to anything involving their favorite teams, it's probably no secret that fans take things more personally than do the players.

Indeed, while it is quite common to see fans of opposing teams call each other names on blogs in the week leading up to a big game and inflict bodily harm on one another in the stands during a game, it's just as common to see players from those same opposing teams laugh it up during timeouts, embrace after the game and even vacation together in the off-season.

Steelers safety Ryan Clark caused a bit of a stir last season when he visited the opposing locker room to see old friend Ed Reed after Baltimore's 13-10 victory at Heinz Field in Week 12. Many fans weren't pleased with Clark's fraternization with "the enemy."

I know I felt at least a bit of betrayal. "How can Clark be so happy in the Ravens' locker room after such a tough defeat?"

To the fans, it was personal. To Clark, it was just visiting with an old friend after work.

If you're a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins, there's a pretty good chance you hate their top rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, with every fiber of your being. Therefore, it had to be super tough when fan favorite and hero of Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, forward Max Talbot, signed a contract with the Flyers during the NHL's free agency period in 2011.

How could Max do that? In addition to being a hero in Game 7 with his two goals, he was also adored for his momentum shifting fight and subsequent "Shhhhhhh!" to the Philly crowd in Game 6 of Pittsburgh's first round clash with the Flyers. The Pens were up 3-2 in the series, but trailed 3-0 in the game, before Talbot's scuffle proved to be a catalyst for a comeback, and Philadelphia was bounced from the postseason.

So, how could he do it? As it turned out, the Flyers offered Talbot the best deal, and he took it.

To Pens fans, it was personal. To Talbot, it was business.

Five seasons ago, the Penguins acquired forward Marian Hossa from the Atlanta Thrashers. Hossa, a soon-to-be free agent, was the quintessential "rent-a-player" and was instrumental in Pittsburgh's march to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Penguins lost to the Detroit Red Wings in six games, and in the off-season, Hossa decided to sign with the Red Wings because he thought they offered him the best shot at winning the Cup.

Pens fans took this as a huge betrayal, and even though Pittsburgh actually avenged the Stanley Cup loss by defeating Hossa and the Red Wings the following season--a Hollywood writer couldn't have conceived a better ending--the fans have yet to forgive him, and it's not uncommon to spot "Maryanne" Hossa t-shirts at sports memorabilia outlets around Pittsburgh.

Hossa was with the Penguins for a mere four months and had no real legacy in the city, but he'll forever be considered a villain for leaving.

Former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace was becoming a fan-favorite prior to the 2012 season (check out all the Wallace highlight tributes), but he decided to hold out all of training camp for more money. Wallace thought he was worth a certain amount, while Pittsburgh's front office thought otherwise. It was just business, but not to Steelers fans. Despite the fact that Wallace returned in time for the start of the season and was the team's most productive receiver a year ago, the fans resented his hold out and questioned his attitude, effort and commitment to the team.

For the fans, things like holdouts and contract disputes aren't always easily written off as "just business."

While it's quite common for professional athletes, both past and present, to view their careers as just a small part of who they are--Troy Polamalu has often said football is not the main focus of his life--it's also quite common for fans to argue over the result of a football game that took place four decades ago.

In conclusion, fans will always care a little more about wins, losses and legacies than many players do. And we'll continue to have a hard time keeping our emotions in check when it comes to the business side of things--for every Hines Ward who simply cannot envision himself playing in another uniform, there are many others who don't mind finishing their careers with last place teams--but that's okay, because if we didn't care so much, the players wouldn't be part of such a lucrative business.

To the fans, it will always be personal.

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