Here’s what the people defending the Manning family don’t understand:

Eli Manning’s refusal to play for the Chargers could cost the people of San Diego their NFL franchise.

No joke.

When superstar-caliber athletes refuse to play for the struggling teams that draft them, they can do much more than merely insult a city and its fans. Consider this. Just one year after John Elway refused to play for Baltimore in 1983, Mayflower moving vans shipped the Colts to Indianapolis.ÊWithin four years of Eric Lindros’ refusal to sign with the Quebec Nordiques in 1991, the team moved to Colorado. Two years after Steve Francis’ 1999 refusal to suit up for the Vancouver Grizzlies, the team began operations in Memphis. And regardless of what ultimately transpires with the Chargers in the aftermath of Manning’s ultimatum and trade to the New York Giants, athlete-induced relocation will happen again.

Say what you want about the struggles of the Colts, Nordiques and Grizzlies: they would all still be in their original cities had Elway, Lindros and Francis shut their big fat mouths and signed on the dotted line. Sometimes it is the players, and not just the squabbles between owners and the fans, that can provide a franchise with the necessary impetus for relocation.

A bold assertion, perhaps. But one that rings almost painfully true when you consider the celebrity-obsessed nature of America.

Big names sell tickets, that’s just the reality of it. There are few franchises amongst America’s sporting big four that could survive without star-power to put butts in the seats. And even the Dallas Cowboys and Boston Red Sox of the world rely on name recognition to stay in the black. When a truly bad team gets a top pick, that pick is much more than a means to plug holes in a lineup. That pick is a marketing tool, a cash cow for the revenue-impaired. The San Diego Chargers need a quarterback — it’s true. But more than that, they need a face to put on their game programs and a jersey to sell on their Web site. Yes, LaDanian Tomlinson has kept the Chargers afloat for three years now. And perhaps Philip Rivers will blossom into a NFL star a few years down the line. But that’s just the problem. Rivers cannot create the same kind of immediate buzz, and therefore revenue, that Manning can. Had the Chargers added Manning — with the cachet inherent in his family name thanks to father Archie and brother Peyton — well, they might just have gotten public approval for a new stadium.

Now, thanks to the indeterminable meddling of said Archie and Peyton, the Chargers may not get that approval. And if they don’t get it, and get it soon, they’ll be playing in Los Angeles in 2007. That might not be so bad for a slight majority of San Diegans. But for the football-worshipping minority that loves the Chargers regardless of whether the Bolts feature Eli Manning or Ryan Leaf at quarterback, it will be excruciating.

That’s really what the Manning supporters don’t understand. The agony of seeing your team in another place. Your heroes cheered by some other city’s fans. Your retired numbers hung in a foreign stadium.

Yes, Archie Manning was just looking out for his son. And because Eli was the consensus number one pick (despite whatever lies the Chargers may spread about liking Rivers just as much), he did have the leverage to escape the Chargers. But that doesn’t make what he did right. Becoming a professional athlete isn’t like joining any other field. You can’t walk away from an employer you don’t like. Inherent in the privilege of joining the league is the obligation to play for the team that acquires your rights. If you are the top pick, it is your duty to try and turn around the worst team, no matter how much you may dislike it.

On Saturday, Eli Manning kept talking about what an “honor” it was to be the number one overall pick. If he truly was that humble a person, he would have been “honored” to accept the Chargers’ millions and play in San Diego. He may have held up the Bolts’ jersey before he was traded, but his ungrateful grimace spoke a thousand words as he posed for the obligatory photo-op, as did his arrogant smirk when he held up the Giants’ uniform after they had acquired him.

Eli Manning will make more money in New York than he would have in San Diego, regardless of his degree of success. And should he succeed, he will be a measurably bigger star playing in the Big Apple. But in the process of squirming his way into the New York limelight, he has made enemies of the people of San Diego. He’d better hope that Philip Rivers and the Chargers prosper without him. Because if they don’t, and the team deserts San Diego (and right now it’s looking more and more likely that they will) — Eli will become a notorious and nefarious incarnation of everything that is wrong with sports.

Now Archie, is that a good position to put your son in?