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How Jon Rahm’s move to LIV Golf compares to the biggest betrayals in sports history

December 06, 2023
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Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, as the old saying goes, and there’s been more smoke surrounding Jon Rahm’s rumored move to LIV Golf in recent weeks than this summer’s wildfire smog. Now, finally, it's official.

The move leaves more questions than answers, but one of the most fascinating—at least for general sports fans across the world—is where Rahm's LIV defection ranks in the shadowy pantheon of sports betrayals. Perhaps you think it shouldn’t qualify, considering the PGA Tour and PIF’s newfound chumminess. Maybe you feel it’s the equivalent of Brutus backstabbing Caesar. Opinions on the subject will change like pin positions, but here’s how we see it today.

Lebron James takes talents to South Beach

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Larry Busacca

Funny story: I was sitting in my uncle’s living room 30 minutes east of Cleveland when LeBron James made “The Decision” live on ESPN in 2010, and let me tell you, it was personal. To them, the Akron kid tucking tail for the neon-soaked streets of South Beach felt like an indictment of their entire lives. While the rest of us heard James talking about winning a ring, they heard him calling Cleveland a loser town full of loser people. Rahm doesn't compare. He wasn’t born down the street from Ponte Vedra. He has no jersey to burn. His LIV move is painful for a variety of reasons, but it's strictly business and business ain’t personal.

Bill Belichick leaves Jets at the altar

Jon Rahm devoted seven years of his life to the PGA Tour. Bill Belichick was head coach of the New York Jets for 24 hours. That pretty much says it all. Because of the success Belichick went on to have in New England, his New York minute is often overlooked, but it’s arguably the most traumatic event in Jets history, eclipsing Rahm's big breakup by lightyears. Somehow Gang Green Gangrene convinced the greatest coach to ever don an NFL headset to say “I do,” but before the marriage license showed up, he ran off with their bitter AFC East rivals. What he’s accomplished since—300 wins, 17 division titles and six Super Bowls—only rubs salt in the wound.

Johnny Damon commits a mortal sin

Ordinarily a Red Sock becoming a Yankee is an unforgivable sin, but for some reason Johnny Damon never felt like a Fenway lifer. Sure, he was a pivotal contributor during their curse-breaking 2004 World Series run (including an all-time ALCS comeback against the dreaded Yanks), but he played for seven teams over the course of his career and his stint in the Bronx lasted exactly as long as his stay in Boston. Call it a pure gut reaction, but Rahm to LIV feels dirtier than this. Yes, their rationale is the same—money (and better clubhouse bathrooms)—but the $600 million Rahm allegedly stands to pocket is significantly more craven than the $52 million Damon got from the Yankees. Whether or not you find George Steinbrenner or the Saudis more problematic depends a lot on how you pronounce your Rs …

Gretzky goes south

Throughout 2022, one of LIV Golf’s most parroted party lines was “grow the game.” This wasn’t about money or normalizing the actions of an insular oil-garchy through the prism of sports, we were told. This was about expanding the game of golf on a global scale. Funnily enough, back in 1988 Wayne Gretzky’s massive move from the very hockey town of Edmonton to the very un-hockey town of Los Angeles was sold in much the same way. This was partly about The Great One—the Oilers could no longer afford to keep him, after all—but it was also about the NHL’s crusade to introduce warm-weather audiences to its cold-weather sport. Gretzky shouldered very little blame or ill will from the move, but this was 35 years ago. Rahm may not be so fortunate. We now know the NHL’s southward expansion robbed several actual hockey towns of their beloved franchises and sputtered as much as it sparked. Despite the altruistic narrative, it ended being all about the Benjamins and it’s tough, in the year 2023, to see Rahm’s LIV move in any other context.

Robert Irsay absconds to Indy

If Rahm had hopped a private jet to Riyadh in the dead of the night while in contention at the Sentry, then and only then might he have stooped to the levels of Robert Irsay Sr., who in the wee hours of March 29th, 1984 packed the Baltimore Colts franchise up in a couple of Mayflower moving trucks and shipped the entire team to Indianapolis. Baltimore got some measure of justice when Art Modell pulled a similar move on the poor people of Cleveland (remember them?) in 1995, but Irsay’s decision will still go down as one of the slimiest in sports history. Say what you want about Rahm, but you can’t say that.

Sol Campbell spurns Spurs

If the closest thing American sports has to Premier League soccer is college football then the closest thing the Premier League has to Ohio State vs. Michigan is Arsenal vs. Tottenham. The two sides of the North London Derby don’t just annoy each other, they loathe one another with every sinew. Their hate is generational, passed down through families like decorative plates. So what happened when Tottenham-academy-kid-turned-captain Sol Campbell spurned Spurs and signed with the Gunners in 2001? Death threats, that’s what. Over twenty years later, Spurs fans still haven’t forgiven the man they call “Judas.” Rahm's blockbuster transfer to LIV Golf, even if it happened last year, when the upstart league was viewed as an affront to not just golf but America, doesn't hold a candle to Campbell’s betrayal. Rahm would have to show up at TPC Scottsdale draped in Arizona Wildcats gear to even come close to matching that treachery.

Lincoln Riley packs bags for La La Land

College football coaches are a lot of things. Trustworthy is not one of them. We all remember Nick Saban’s abrupt exit from the Miami Dolphins and Lane Kiffin’s Rocky Top resignation, but perhaps the most shocking sayonara was Lincoln Riley’s move from Oklahoma to USC in 2021. Less than 24 hours after the Sooners’ 37-33 loss to in-state rivals Oklahoma State, Riley was bound for La La Land with his family and coaching staff in tow. The Heartland-to-Hollywood transition had plenty of cultural implications, but the on-field impact was even more pronounced, with the Sooners falling to 6-7 in 2022. Unlike Riley and his fellow flakey ball coaches, we’d hardly describe Rahm as a snake in the grass, but this one feels like a push. There were two big factors in Riley’s decision to leave Norman—money and family—and the same could be said for Rahm. But much like Oklahoma, who shafted the Big 12 with their defection to the SEC a few months before Riley’s exit, it’s tough to say the PGA Tour didn't have it coming.

Brett Favre becomes a Purple People Eater

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Rob Tringali

Midwesterners are widely regarded as America’s friendliest folk … except when it comes to sports. Detroit hates Chicago, Chicago hates Minneapolis, and they all hate Green Bay. So when Favre signed with the Minnesota Vikings in 2009 after a Hall of Fame career with the Green Bay Packers, it didn't go down well with the cheddar heads up at Lambeau. Even so, this hardly rates on the scale of scummy things Favre has done over the years. Nor does it feel as significant as Jon Rahm‘s potential jump to LIV. Favre was at the tail end of his career when he moved to the Twin Cities. He had already logged a two-year stint with the Jets and “retired” twice before donning the purple and gold. Rahm, however, is in his prime and there will be no gap year to give everyone emotional distance. After weeks of speculation, the announcement happened hard and fast and you can expect Rahm back out on the course for LIV's 2024 season opener, because for $600 million, the Saudis are going to get their money’s worth.

John Fisher fleeces Oakland

A lot like Rahm’s LIV saga, the situation is still fluid and the final result is still murky. Also like Rahm’s LIV saga, the outcome is looking increasingly, painfully obvious. For years, Oakland Athletics owner John Fisher stripped the franchise for parts while working tirelessly to fleece Bay Area taxpayers out of billions of dollars for a mall you can play baseball in. Finally it appears the grift is over with the As reportedly on their way to Las Vegas to reunite with their former roomie Raiders. This follows a series of shady tactics to force the move by Fisher and team president Dave Kaval, including regularly moving up first-pitch times by several hours, discontinuing rewards programs, raising ticket and parking prices by over 50% and letting the Coliseum fall into state of dangerous disrepair. Rahm looks like a monk by comparison. He’s not tearing up greens at TPC Sawgrass or holding Jay Monahan’s poodle hostage. He took the money, shook Greg Norman's hand and that was that. There’s a simple honesty in that, and whether you like his final decision or not, all you can you do is tip your cap.