On Tuesday night the Boston Celtics traded Isaiah Thomas away to their conference rival, the Cleveland Cavaliers. The move was surprising for a few reasons, but none more so than the fact that during his short stint in Boston, Thomas had become the face of the franchise. He had become the team’s engine and easily the team’s most popular player. Less than two months ago, Thomas’ Celtics’ jersey was the 7th most popular jersey, ahead of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green of the Warriors, John Wall of the Wizards and Dwyane Wade of the Bulls. Thomas was the only Celtic on the list.
Thomas endeared himself to Celtics’ fans with his gritty play, his acrobatic bursts getting to the rim and his hard-nosed relentlessness. He routinely played through injury and during the 2017 playoffs, played through the sudden death of his sister, making the trip home to Washington for the funeral in between games. Thomas gave the Celtics an energy and level of excitement that had been missing since the final days of the Big 3 era, when Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were traded to Brooklyn and Ray Allen went to Miami. He also had a MVP-level season last year, finishing with a 46.3 field-goal percentage and over 2,100 points.
So why on earth, with news of the trade still fresh, were a select group of Celtics’ fans burning Thomas’ jersey? We know sports is a business and as a business, it’s a blisteringly cold business. But is it really that cold? As fans, are we that quick to turn our backs on the athletes we come to love and support?
Sadly the answer is yes. Although to be fair, there is a distinction to be made.
For starters, Thomas didn’t choose to leave, so it’s not as if fans should fell some sense of abandonment. Secondly, he gave his all for Boston. He doesn’t deserve to be disrespected like that.
Burning jerseys has become an increasingly popular way to express your displeasure at a player leaving your city and also grab some of that social media love. When LeBron James first left Cleveland, they burned his jersey. Then we he left Miami to come back to Cleveland, they burned his jersey in Miami. Presumably when James leaves Cleveland next summer (something that has been rumored to happen throughout the summer) his Cavs jersey will be burned once again.
Gordan Hayward, who signed with Boston this summer, even fell victim to this run of jersey destruction, as his Jazz jersey was set ablaze by disgruntled and disappointed Utah fans. Dwyane Wade’s Heat jersey was burned last summer when he left Miami and signed with Chicago. The same goes for Kevin Durant’s Thunder jersey, which was burned when it was announced that he was leaving Oklahoma City for the Warriors.
Yet there is a difference here. Both James, Hayward and Durant left their respective teams and cities on their own terms. They made the choice to leave. To a lesser extent, so did Wade, although it seemed like he was casually pushed out of South Beach, rather than opting to leave on his own. Thomas (as far as we know) didn’t want to be dealt. He seemed to love Boston and before the move, the talk was whether or not Boston would re-sign him next summer, something he appeared eager to want to happen.
Listen, if we are going to continue this asinine tradition of burning sports jerseys then we need to set up some ground rules. This is not something that can be governed and determined by some broad brush strokes. There should not be gray area when it comes to jersey burning. Thomas’ jersey shouldn’t have been burned for a variety of reasons, but mostly it shouldn’t have been burned because burning jerseys has become a go-to reaction to a player leaving.
We need rules!
Right off the bat, if a player is traded and it’s a move prompted by a team simply looking to improve, the jersey does not get burned. A player’s jersey should only be burned if the player in question did something and that was the motivation behind the team trading them. If the player in question was just a role player in the move, whether it’s their release or them being traded, they shouldn’t be held responsible. Their jersey should not suffer.
If you do want to burn a jersey, it should be because one of the following things were to happen:
- A player leaves via free agency
- A player commits a crime
Let’s start with players leaving a team via free agency because I think even then, it’s not necessarily cut and dry.
I’m of the opinion that neither Durant or Hayward’s jersey should have been burned. I understand that for Utah and Oklahoma City fans it was hard to see each player leave. They had meant so much to your team and your city that in some sense it felt like a betrayal, like they were leaving you (which of course they were.) But it’s because they had meant so much to your team and your city is why their jerseys should have been spared.
Durant spent eight seasons in Oklahoma, Hayward spent seven in Utah. They had been drafted by each team and signed extensions with each team. They led both clubs to the playoffs, to playoff wins and to varying levels of success. As far as franchise players go, you really couldn’t ask for much more.
For Durant in the summer of 2016 and Hayward in the summer of 2017, the time had come for them to see what else was out there and to move on. I don’t recall either one saying anything disparaging or negative about the teams and cities they were leaving behind. The move was about them as players, as individuals.
So let’s make this a rule: if a player spends at least five years with a team and leaves citing reasons ranging from playing closer to home, the opportunity to play with a friend or seeking out a situation that would improve their ability and/or chances for a championship, their jerseys don’t get burned.
Now you could then counter with a question about LeBron James and that’d be fair. So let’s tackle whether or not it’s okay to burn LeBron’s jersey.
Yes. Yes it is – his Cavaliers jersey that is.
Technically there’s not much of a difference between Durant leaving the Thunder and James leaving the Cavs and then the Heat. They were free agents, it’s their right to seek out the best deal possible. However, where the two diverge is how they left.
Just like Hayward, James had spent seven seasons with the team that had drafted him. That team wasn’t just any team though, it was his hometown team. James had grown up in nearby Akron, he was a Cleveland kid. He was one of Cleveland’s own and had single-handily resurrected the Cavaliers’ franchise and given new life to the city of Cleveland. When he entered free agency in the summer of 2010 there was a fear he was going to leave, but if he did, I don’t think anyone thought he’d leave in the way he did, surprising everyone with an announcement of his intentions on live television.
Again, it was fine that James left. But how he left is very much not fine. Thus it was totally acceptable for fans to burn his jersey.
Miami fans though? Yeah, not so much.
Heat fans were given a winning lottery ticket when James came to town and in four seasons he brought them two championships and hours upon hours of wildly entertaining basketball. When he left to return to Cleveland in 2014 he should have been given a thank you card, maybe a nice edible arrangement. His jersey should not have been burned.
As for what happens next season, that will depend on how things go down. If James leaves Cleveland again, the reaction shouldn’t be as harsh. He brought the city their first championship in decades. That should count for something.
Where a player signs in free agency should also be factored into whether or not it’s acceptable to burn their jersey. For instance, Julius Peppers, currently of the Carolina Panthers, spent four seasons with the Chicago Bears before signing with the team’s chief rival, the Green Bay Packers, in 2014. The Packers and Bears are legit rivals; it’s not some cheap, ginned up rivalry. You switch sides in a rivalry you’re bound to rub people the wrong way. Your jersey is definitely going to be burnt.
Verdict? Burning Peppers’ jersey is acceptable, but don’t get carried away. He was only a Bear for four seasons. He’s mostly associated with Panthers.
In 2013 Jacoby Ellsbury left the Red Sox for the Yankees and his Sox jersey was promptly burned. Sox fans loved Ellsbury and seeing him head south to the Bronx stung. It also felt eerily similar to Johnny Damon leaving the Red Sox for the Bombers a few years earlier. Burning Damon’s jersey? Totally acceptable. Burning Ellsbury’s? Pretty acceptable. Things always get slightly more involved when championships are involved.
When it comes to players who have committed crimes, especially heinous and despicable ones, all bets are off. Burn away. No discussion needed.
Finally, let’s be real here and say that if a player on your favorite team has a bad game or is in the midst of a string of bad games, it’s not okay to burn their jersey. I’m not a Giants’ fan, but I’m assuming Eli Manning can be pretty frustrating at times. Should you burn his jersey though? No way. Manning won Giants’ fan two Super Bowls and won both in dramatic fashion. On top of that, Manning is a roller coaster. He’ll have some bad games, then some good games, followed by some mediocre games and then somehow put together a decent playoff run. Burning a Manning jersey is short-sighted and fiscally irresponsible. Jerseys are expensive and there’s a good chance you’ll want that Manning jersey at least one more time before he retires.
When Jay Cutler was on the Bears, burning his jersey was probably a fairly common occurrence among Bears’ fans. He wasn’t going to win a title in Chicago and he always seemed to be on the brink of leaving. Burning a Cutler jersey was a low-risk proposition that made complete sense and was totally defensible.
Ultimately burning a jersey doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But, if you are going to do so, it should be like a Bears’ fan burning a Cutler jersey – totally defensible. You should be able to explain why you chose to do so pretty easily and in turn, should be able to make a case that doesn’t garner much resistance.
That’s where the burning of Isaiah Thomas jerseys runs into trouble. There isn’t a case to made for why you should burn his jersey. You can’t cite his lack of production, you can’t say he ditched the team, you can’t say he never gave the team and the city his all. While he was in Boston, Thomas was the model franchise player. Then he was traded. I’d say it happens all the time in sports, but a team trading away a player as popular as Thomas is in Boston who was also incredibly productive is a rarity. It just doesn’t happen that often.
Which is exactly what we should say when the subject of burning one of his jerseys comes up.
It just doesn’t happen.
Or at least it shouldn’t.