I think that many would argue that the role of a professional athlete in an organization, especially a famous one, is a bit of an anomaly compared to the daily reality of most other inhabitants of Planet Earth — even if these athletes are part of a "business." And therefore anything that might be said about parallels between their profession and any of ours must be valuated with this in mind.
Of course, a professional sports team is a business — first and foremost — and is managed accordingly. Sports teams are referred to as "franchises," and as such, they are truly multinational, capitalistic entities whose modus operandi is to market their brand and to make a buck. Like any business, a sports team will survive based on how well its employees work together to achieve their goals and how proficient each member is at their individual role within this framework. The more skilled the employees, the better the team does and the more profit it turns.
For this reason, some athletes — because of who they are and how they contribute to their organizations — raise interesting questions about how businesses manage their employees. Specifically, at what point does the cost of a valuable employee outweigh the potential profit they represent? If a high-performing employee becomes disruptive because of their attitude, dress, or behavior, at what point do you draw the line?
Before you offer an answer, consider the case of Mr. Manny Ramirez:
Manny is a professional baseball player and a future Hall of Famer. His preternatural talent for hitting the ball to every part of the field (including 527 hits that have landed in the bleachers) and his comfort at the plate with two strikes against him, make Manny a valuable contributor to his organization. (In fact, the Red Sox thought that Manny was such a singular asset that they were willing to pay him nearly $20 million a year for his services.)
As a part of the organization’s brand and image, Manny is essential. As a laid-back and unusual guy, he helped to cement (or at least perpetuate) the Red Sox’s reputation as the less "corporate" alternative to the clean-cut and always out-spending New York Yankees. As a team member, Manny kept the attitude in the locker room relaxed (think salsa music) and when he was in the lineup, he provided valuable protection for his teammate and fellow All-Star slugger, David Ortiz. He also helped bring fans to the park and sell jerseys around the world.
Not to mention that in terms of an organization’s goals (which is obviously to get to the World Series and hopefully win it), Manny was a big contributor. He’d led the Red Sox to two World Series in 2004 and 2007 (and won the World Series MVP in 2004).
But on the flip-side of the coin, there is Manny The Distraction. Take his dreadlocks, for instance — or his propensity for taking bathroom breaks and making phone calls in the middle of a game. Sure, Manny is laid-back — he marches to his own beat — and certainly some organizations go out of their way to hire this type of character. In fact, Businessweek.com went so far as to call Manny an Innovator.
But then there are others that found Manny’s quirky conduct to be "unprofessional," and over the years he’s received many unflattering characterizations, like "flake", "agitator", "Prima donna", and "clueless ****head." Some also claimed that Manny failed to hustle consistently — that he didn’t give his "full effort" every time he took the field.
During his eight-year stay in Boston, management and fans went out of their way to accommodate Manny because of his outstanding performance on the field. But this season, as reports of his "unhappiness in Boston" intensified and were combined with his reported assault of a member of the clubhouse and a near-fistfight with a fellow teammate, the Red Sox Organization decided they’d had their fill of his "laissez faire" attitude. In the middle of the 2008 season, Manny was traded to Los Angeles.
The Red Sox made the only choice they felt they had, but was it the right one?
Many argue that the reports of Manny’s violent conduct were incidental, that they may have been provoked and were not in fact his fault. Just as many argue that with his active contribution in the 2008 postseason would have likely propelled them into the World Series. (They lost in the second round.) Not to mention Manny’s postseason statistics, which are nearly unprecedented. In fact, David Ortiz was recently quoted as saying that with Manny still on the team for the 2008 playoffs, the Red Sox would have made it to the World Series and won. And there are the observations that paint Manny as a surprisingly studious ballplayer—few players have been known to watch more tape or practice their craft more dilligently…
Perhaps these elements complicate matters, perhaps they don’t. Either way, they seem to make Manny into a bit of a Jekyll & Hyde-type character. For the Red Sox organization, Manny’s cost outweighed his benefit, and the short-term benefit did not exceed the long-term price for his behavior. Like any other business, the Red Sox had their breaking point; they felt that Manny’s conduct was impeding the team’s ability to function as a cohesive unit and that they could be successful without him.
Sometimes taking a loss is better than accepting a dishonest gain—to lose Manny to a Western team was easier than winning with his disruptive conduct. Perhaps Mark Cuban could take a lesson from that?
But, even so, questions remain: what do you do with your superstars? Do you put up with them simply to prevent them from going to one of your competitors? Or do you quickly draw the line and if they step over it, fire them and concentrate on building other pieces of the organization?
What's a business to do?