When Shawne “Lights Out “Merriman’s career as a San Diego Charger began in 2005, he was labeled “The West Coast version of Lawrence Taylor,” and he was quoted as saying that he wanted to be better then Chargers all time great Junior Seau.
However, what started out as a success, ended in disappointment and sadness. Now, in 2010, Merriman has been released by the San Diego Chargers, and his stint with the team is over.
Merriman’s struggles after his successful 2005-2007 seasons can be traced through an understanding of who he is as a person, and the issues he had on and off the football field. Merriman’s time as a San Diego Charger is a prime example of how players and their loyalties with the communities and organizations they represent is no longer genuine.
Merriman’s upbringing in Upper Marlborough, Md., tells anyone what they would need to know about who Merriman is. Merriman grew up in a single-parent home, held his first job at the age of 12, had to deal with the tragedy of losing his house to a fire twice, and the struggles of less the adequate food and clothing to deal with every day life on the frigid north East Coast.
Merriman was so embarrassed by his living situation at home, that when he was being recruited to play football at colleges, he avoided having coaches come to his home. Throughout his rough childhood, Merriman did his best to help those around him, regardless of the circumstances. This is why loyalty is one of the character traits that Merriman values most.
Merriman had one outlet to unleash his pain and frustrations that came with helping out those who he remained loyal to; football.
Merriman’s outstanding football talents surfaced when he was a high school student at Frederick Douglass High School. It was during this time that he began to earn the nickname “Lights Out,” for his ability to literally knock the lights out of his opponents. On the field he was “Lights Out,” but off the field he was described as “quietly sweet, (and) particularly polite.”
Evidence of the sweet and polite Merriman were evident years later as Shawne started his NFL career. In 2006 he gave the largest individual donation in its history to a San Diego homeless shelter, has had numerous charity events to help others in the Maryland area, and even donated $12,500 to his high school football program. He did all of this to help others and remain loyal to his high school coach, JC Pinkey, who told Merriman “You have an ability that can take you very far in life. You can play beyond college. Just do me this one thing: If you're ever in a position where you can, just make sure you help people.”
While Merriman’s relationship with the San Diego community started off shaky due to a contract dispute, he was able to gain San Diego’s support with his performance on the field. In his rookie year in 2005 Merriman was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the year, and was elected to play in the Pro Bowl. Merriman’s “Light’s Out” on the field persona was growing, and the fans loved it. He had the community’s full support, much like the support he felt back at home in Maryland.
He began to submerge himself into the San Diego community by donating to local charities, and publicly supporting the Padres, even throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at one of their games in early 2006.
His bond with the San Diego community would be tested shortly thereafter.
During the 2006 season Shawne Merriman violated the NFL’s steroids and related substances policy. While Merriman denied the allegations, he accepted his punishment regardless. This was the first time that Merriman would face adversity in his Chargers career, and the fans and head coach Marty Schottenheimer and the team supported him fully. As Tim Sullivan on the San Diego Union Tribune wrote after the allegations, “There is no backlash. There are no consequences. Shawne Merriman jerseys are as ubiquitous as Starbucks.”
When Shawne returned to the field he was still his old all-star self, earning another invitation to the Pro Bowl, and helping the Chargers into the playoffs. When the Chargers were eliminated from the playoffs by the New England Patriots, the Patriots stormed the field and did Merriman’s patented “Lights Out” celebration.
Again, his teammates and the rest of San Diego came to Shawne’s defense. Fellow Charger and Pro Bowler, LaDainian Tomlinson said, “When you go to the middle of our field and start doing the dance Shawne Merriman is known for, that is disrespectful. They showed no class.”
The loyalty and bond Merriman felt to San Diego continued to grow.
The following season Merriman said that he would no longer perform the “Lights Out” dance in an effort to show that he was part of the team, and no more important then anyone else. The Chargers, and the Chargers fans did not want to see the dance go.
Merriman revived the dance after three games after encouragement from his teammates and the San Diego community. When wild fires burned down 1,500 homes and cost the San Diego community $1 billion, Merriman showed his support and loyalty to San Diego by coming out the following Sunday in a fire fighter helmet.
Again these are examples of the relationship he had with San Diego and the Chargers. Even after Merriman spoke out against the team, and challenged them to give more effort after a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, everyone supported him.
Merriman had another Pro Bowl season in 2007, but it would be his last as a Charger.
During the first three years of his career the San Diego community stuck behind Merriman, and gave him a sense of home that he was always valued throughout his childhood. During these three years Merriman was also one of the best linebackers in the NFL.
His success on the field was the reason why the community were so loyal and able to look past some of his lapses in judgment. However, Merriman’s view of what loyal is, is the polar opposite of the way that the NFL’s version of loyalty. Organizations and fans nowadays are only loyal to those players who perform. Former NFL coach, and NFL and College football Hall of Famer Mike Ditka put it best when he said "(Loyalty)'s all gone. Completely gone. Replaced by selfishness and greed."
Is it harder to create a bond with a team when the players on the team are constantly changing?
In a current era of sports, where everything is ruled by money and immediate production, there is no time for real relationships, or real loyalty. This was the shocking reality that Merriman was about to face in the second half of his Chargers tenure.
The reason for the loss of loyalty in sports is caused by the changes in the structure of the way leagues are run. No longer do players play their entire careers for one franchise, they move around as free agents and as traded commodities. This change has made a significant impact on the way players view themselves. Players are doing more and more to publicize themselves then ever before.
At the end of the 2007 season Merriman injured his left knee. He was given the option to sit have major surgery on his knee and miss most of the 2008 season, or have minor surgery and be ready to for the season opener. Despite the advice given to him by doctors, and general manager A.J. Smith, Merriman elected to go with the minor surgery and come back for the start of the 2008 season. Again, Merriman’s loyalty to the team was evident, and again he was supported fully by the team and San Diego.
However this decision proved to be a huge mistake. Merriman performed poorly in the Charger’s first game of the season against the Carolina Panthers, and decided that he owed it to his teammates and fans to go have the surgery even if it meant he would have to miss the entire 2008 season, because he could not perform as well as he expected.
The Chargers and Chargers fans still stood beside him, but Merriman’s knee injury marked the start of his loss of support of the Chargers and the San Diego community.
The 2009 season was an important season financially for Merriman because he was in his contract year. This is the year when a player is playing the last year of his current contract. It is important because it has a great impact on the next contract a player will receive.
Usually, high profile players sign new contracts before their contract year even begins. This was not the case with Merriman. He was coming off an injury, and had just been in an off the field domestic dispute with reality star Tila Tiquilla. Merriman claimed he had done nothing wrong, but instead of the Chargers and San Diego coming to his aid as they had in the past with his other issues, they were hesitant to believe Merriman.
The loyalty and relationship that Merriman had was visibly deteriorating due to his lack of ability to perform on the field. He had shown he cared and that he was willing to do whatever he could for the team the season before, and they were not showing him the support back.
Midway through the 2010 season after another injury, Merriman was released from the San Diego Chargers. Instead of standing by a player who had brought so much to the San Diego community, and the Chargers franchise, A.J. Smith and the Chargers upper management decided to let Merriman go. The end of Merriman’s tenure as a Charger displays a disturbing lack of loyalty amongst professional sports franchises and players.
Back before the time of free agency, sports were different. Players stayed on the same team for their whole careers, and created a bond between them and the cities they represented. While staying with one team is not the best way for a player to make money, it does give the players something else, a family.
All of the players who spend time with one franchise, and one community become figure heads for everything a a community or city represents. This bond is something that sports is going to start to miss as free agency and player movement becomes more and more common.
While it is easy to blame the players for this phenomenon, in the case of Merriman, it is clear to see that teams are not loyal to their players in the same way that fan accuse players of not being loyal to cities and franchises. Professional sports leagues need to revert to their old ways of creating families, and not just products, otherwise individual teams will start to slowly lose their loyal fan base.