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The hidden costs of NFL Free Agency

Free agency is here to stay but, besides the obvious advantages for players, there are some significant drawbacks for fans and their sense of loyalty to the home team.

Pittsburgh Steelers Practice Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

It’s a tough sell when your business is loyalty. Sooner or later, business and loyalty will begin to conflict, and it’s not good for either. Consider how and why you became loyal to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Perhaps it’s because you were born in the Pittsburgh area. Maybe it’s something you inherited from your family. In my case, it’s both. But while my loyalty hasn’t wavered over the years, what has kept it strong has been the players. That is, as much as I admired and respected the Rooney family as a boy, it was Franco and Swann and Jack Ham that held me hostage.

The eighties included their share of disappointing seasons for two related reasons. First, we weren’t winning as much. Second, the players weren’t as compelling. I follow on Twitter @SteelCityStar who has been providing a great service, posting clips from various games in Steelers’ history. In the space of 20 minutes, I was able to “rewatch” Super Bowl IX. But he also recently took his followers through the ‘87 season. It was great to see Rod Woodson as a rookie, and Stallworth in his final season. But Rodney Carter? Greg Carr? At least I have some memory of those two, but starting TE Danzell Lee? Who are these guys? Age caught up with my childhood heroes. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, money is as likely to move a player on as age is. Whether it’s salary cap structures or free agency, we can no longer count on a player spending his entire career with the same team. On the rare occasions when it happens, we give thanks. Truth be told, we also give thanks when some other team’s money issues bring us an upgrade. Who didn’t love seeing Kevin Greene in the opponent’s backfield wearing black-and-gold? For every Kevin Greene we’ve received, however, we’ve also lost a Hardy Nickerson and a Chad Brown.

There are benefits to the cap and to free agency. I like the idea of players charting their own courses. I like the benefits to parity that the cap brings. What I don’t want to see, however, is the game devolve to a matter of which team has the shrewdest GM, where rosters become such revolving doors that we end up rooting for just the uniforms. I get that role-players have always come and gone, and that every new season brings another crop of rookies. Time stands still for no man. But forgive me for tiptoeing close to heresy — I’d rather see the Steelers be the Steelers and merely be competitive, than be the Yankees, or the superteam du jour in the NBA.

We’ve heard the common refrain from players who have moved on in search of greener pastures that none is greener than Heinz Field. We’ve seen a virtual parade of players come back home for one last round. That’s a good thing, but a tough sell when some other team is waving greenbacks in your face. My hope, like any other fan, is that our guys will give us enough of a hometown discount that they can stay as our guys and we can root for the players rather than the uniforms.