Editor's note: This post has been updated. This version ran in the March 20 print edition.
"This is not a democracy. It's a cheerocracy."
The famous line from Bring It On ran through my head as I watched the fallout from the Carolina Panthers releasing fan favorite Steve Smith this month. Fans took to social media, local sports radio shows - a dozen or so even gathered outside Bank of America Stadium - to protest the decision, calling the team disloyal.
But this isn't government. This is football.
Watching fans malign the Panthers has made it clear to me why general manager David Gettleman is paid the big money to make the tough decisions, while fans continue to be ... fans. This is not American Idol, nor is Gettleman facing a popular vote in an upcoming election. He was hired to do the job he is doing.
While former management (*cough* Marty Hurney *cough*) can be blamed for the dismal state of the team's financial affairs, it can't be overlooked that Gettleman must do what he can - as soon as he can - to right the money boat. As bittersweet as the decision is, it was time for the Panthers to move on.
Smith will collect $3 million from the Panthers even as he's released, but that's compared to the $7 million in cap room he would take up playing in Charlotte, where last year he posted career lows in catches, yards and average yards per reception, and struggled with injuries down the stretch.
The Panthers placed the franchise tag on Greg Hardy, who posed the biggest threat to their salary cap this offseason. The team now has negotiations with Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly, the two biggest building blocks of the team's future, to look forward to in the next two years. Smith turns 35 in two months, and it's time for a shift in priorities.
The problem with the so-called Panthers fans' reaction is their definition of "loyalty." People have threatened to root for Smith's new team, the Baltimore Ravens, because the Panthers haven't shown any "loyalty" to the face of the franchise. Let me remind those fans what it looks like when an organization negotiates out of loyalty.
Kobe Bryant has arguably done more for the Los Angeles Lakers franchise than any athlete in the past 30 years has done for his team (Derek Jeter is the only one who comes close). In November, the Lakers came to the negotiating table as fans and offered Bryant a $48.5 million contract extension. He has since played all of six games as his team sits tied for the worst record in the Western Conference.
As Smith's agent broke the news on March 12 that his client would no longer play as a Panther, news also broke that Bryant was not expected to play another game in the NBA this season. But at least his team is loyal.
Let us also not forget that Smith was all but gone from Charlotte of his own accord following the 2010 season. He had cleared his locker out after that dismal year, asked for a trade and even put his house on the market. Thinking he showed nothing but pure loyalty to an organization that now "shuns him" is laughable. He deserved better than to hear about the team's intentions to cut him through the media, but fans jumping from the Panthers bandwagon is a bit extreme.
I will miss Steve Smith as much as the next guy, but as a lifelong sports fan, I understand these decisions need to be made. I've watched the highlights from his famous touchdown in the 2003 playoffs a couple of times in the last few days. I'm filled with nostalgia, not misplaced anger.
I recognize the Panthers have not had a strong offseason early on. That is due in part to Hurney's mess and to management stepping on their own toes. As potential Smith replacements continue to drop from the free agency pool, patience wears thin among even the most optimistic.
The Panthers haven't, in their entire history, made the playoffs two years in a row. It may not happen the next time around either. The team paid two of the best defensive players in the league, Kuechly and Hardy, under $2 million combined last year. That was a bubble sure to burst, and re-signing Hardy under the franchise tag took up about two thirds of the Panthers' cap space.
As for Smith, if Gettleman can get this team to win on a consistent basis, the fans will forget all about the tough decisions that had to be made to get them there.
Bobcats fans gasped when owner Michael Jordan traded fan favorite Gerald Wallace to the Trail Blazers in 2011 for multiple future first-round draft picks and cash. Three years later, the Bobcats are playoff bound, and Wallace gets a healthy applause when he comes to town.
When asked how he feels about playing his former team, Smith said he will always be a Carolina Panther, but that if his path "happens to run through Bank of America Stadium, there will be blood and guts everywhere."
Fans won't be treated to that spectacle (the Ravens don't play in Charlotte) but the Panthers will be visiting Smith in Baltimore this fall. Everyone has until then to decide where their loyalties lie.