SALT LAKE CITY — After trading most of their assets to accumulate draft capital, the Miami Dolphins are off to “the worst start in the modern history of the NFL.”

Their woes offer a chance to address some foundational questions for sports fans: Do they owe their favorite teams unconditional support? And do their favorite teams/players have any obligation toward them?

Miami Dolphins running backs Mark Walton and Kenyan Drake, console running back Kalen Ballage.
Miami Dolphins running backs Mark Walton (22) and Kenyan Drake (32), console running back Kalen Ballage (27), during the second half at an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, in Miami Gardens, Fla. The Patriots defeated the Dolphins 43-0. | Wilfredo Lee, Associated Press

A good person to ask is Shawn Klein, a lecturer of philosophy at Arizona State who calls himself “The Sports Ethicist.” 

“On a fundamental level,” he said, “they might not owe each other anything.”

Many others concur, perhaps none more so than Derek Thompson. In a 2018 Atlantic article titled “American Sports Need More Fair-Weather Fans,” he argues for abandonment of “unconditional devotion” because it “permits incompetent management to go unpunished.”

He concluded his case with a scene of himself at a bar, watching LeBron James lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2016 NBA title. Cleveland, at that point, hadn’t won a major sports title since the Browns won the pre-Super Bowl NFL Championship in 1964. Wouldn’t Thompson feel less joy than a lifelong Cavs fan who spent his entire fandom waiting for this moment?

“Sure,” Thompson admitted, “maybe I enjoyed the victory a bit less than some long-suffering Clevelander. But unlike that fan, I’ve got James’s 2019 title with the Los Angeles Lakers to look forward to.”

Thompson’s approach aligns with a “purist” stance. Writing in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, sports philosopher Nicholas Dixon distinguishes between “partisan” fans, who are loyal, and purists, who support a team that “exemplifies the highest virtues of the game.” 

“The ideal attitude for fans is that of the moderate partisan,” he wrote, “who combines the admirable loyalty of the partisan fan with the purist’s realization that teams that violate the rules or spirit of the game do not deserve our support.”

Klein added it’s impossible to ignore a fan’s unique relationship with a team. Sure, he said, sports clubs are businesses. But a consumer’s relationship with them transcends a normal business relationship. No one feels the same way about their fandom of the Cincinnati Bengals as they do about Walmart.

“It becomes a regional connection,” he said. “A social connection. A part of your identity.”

He also criticized Thompson’s embrace of fair-weather fandom, noting that suffering through challenging times provides an unmistakable benefit.

“I don’t know quite how to pinpoint the criticism,” he said, “but it doesn’t quite capture what it is to be a fan.”

What about teams owing fans? David Roth, writing in Sports on Earth, called ownership of a sports team a “public trusteeship,” though he acknowledged few owners seem to know or care. 

Consider former Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, for example. He convinced Miami-Dade County to invest $500 million in construction costs for a new ballpark. In return, he promised to invest in a winning team. He signed free agents like Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell to prove it. By the end of the season, with the team not winning enough, Loria’s group unloaded them — and many other marquee players — prompting Time magazine to write a story titled “How the Miami Marlins Disgraced Baseball.”

Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria watches during the eighth inning of a baseball game between the Marlins and the New York Mets.
Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria watches during the eighth inning of a baseball game between the Marlins and the New York Mets, Tuesday, June 27, 2017, in Miami. The Marlins defeated the Mets 6-3. | Wilfredo Lee, Associated Press

“While the only thing that all the people who own sports teams have in common is tremendous wealth, a survey of the sports scene suggests that the other thing owners should have in common — a basic recognition of the civic significance of the teams they own — is in eclipse or wholly absent, old or dying or dead,” Roth added. “At any rate, there is a responsibility deficit here, and it is crushing.”

Regarding the Dolphins, Klein said while their approach looks objectionable, the idea of building toward a better future after 20 years of mediocrity could be “very effective” in fulfilling the team’s obligation to fans if their rebuilding effort proves competent. And generally, he said a team’s unique relationship with its community “does generate certain kinds of responsibilities and obligations.”

As for athletes and their relationship with fan, “John B” acknowledged on Gang Green Nation that sports are a business, and athletes are obliged to look out for themselves. But his article, written in the wake of James leaving Cleveland for Miami, also criticized James’ decision; something just didn’t feel right about abandoning his hometown fans, even if the move to Miami was best for him. 

Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James, left, looks to pass the ball as Cleveland Cavaliers’ David Nwaba defends.
Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James, left, looks to pass the ball as Cleveland Cavaliers’ David Nwaba defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018, in Cleveland. | Tony Dejak, Associated Press

“I said yesterday I didn’t blame LeBron for leaving because his front office gave him a terrible supporting cast,” he continued. “I changed my mind once I saw the faces on Cleveland fans.”

Klein also supports an athlete’s right to choose their destination, but he added that James’ infamous “The Decision” was ethically problematic. Athletes ought to recognize their choices impact fans profoundly. Even if fans don’t like their decisions, Klein said, athletes should do their best to minimize heartache. So it wasn’t so much the fact that James left, but the way he did it. 

“It exacerbated the feelings of loss,” he said. “It was like showing a breakup on national television.”

In general, Klein said the team-fan-athlete relationship complex does demand certain obligations — but they’re tough to define, and they’re left up to each sports fan to navigate.

“Hashing it out to specific obligations,” he acknowledged, “is a little more difficult.”