The point left a contrail above his head

Matthew Yglesias has been one of my favorite bloggers for years, but in commenting today on Lebron James, he misses the point about as badly as a point can be missed.

I’m all for rooting against the new look Heat, but it is worth saying that a lot of the anti-LeBron commentary of the past couple of days bespeaks a major anti-labor bias in our popular culture. The guy had an offer from one employer and a competing offer from another employer—he took the offer he preferred. Is that really so terrible? Does he really have a moral obligation to work for Dan Gilbert’s for-profit firm indefinitely? Would you like to be told that if you get offered a better job, it’s unethical for you to accept it? I wouldn’t.

Look. This stuff doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and we’re not talking about, say, a District Manager for Fed-Ex going to work as a District Manager for UPS. There’s a lot more at work here than an employee simply deciding to take a new job.

Mega-star sports figures who command salaries in the stratospheres of their sports simply aren’t comparable, as employees, to people like Matt Yglesias, who work in a cubicle farm writing blog posts all day. These kinds of sports figures become identifiable parts of their communities in ways that the vast, vast, vast majority of employees in this country never even come close to being. That being the case, moral questions regarding James’s departure can, and do, and ought to, come into play.

Besides, no one is saying that James had a moral obligation to stay in Cleveland. In this day and age, no one would really suggest that, and when a great and beloved athlete manages to stay with one team for an entire career, it’s viewed as (a) an anomaly, and (b) something of an equal effort on the part of the player and the ownership. Most times a player in that case will voluntarily forego a larger offer or two over the course of their career, if they think the situation they’re already in is a pretty good one. The claim can be made that the morally preferable course would have been for James to stay in Cleveland, but nobody thinks he was obliged to do so.

The criticism, as far as I can see it, focuses on a number of issues surrounding James’s decision to leave. There was the callous manner in which he did it, stringing Cleveland along so they couldn’t get a jump-start on a post-Lebron era until after the Draft and once free agency was already in full swing; there was the way he pretty much treated the fans of that city as if they were disposable; there was the way he pretty much structured the entire episode so as to stroke his own ego.

It all reminded me of a scene in the movie Nixon. Late in the film, when Watergate is starting to bring the administration down, Nixon holds a press conference to make some sort of announcement. To that point, when he’s announced stuff, the entire room has always erupted into applause, but at this event, he makes his announcement, steps back to receive the applause…and only his aides are applauding. Everyone else is just sitting there. That’s what the Lebron James fiasco has looked like. He constructed this entire thing utterly convinced that everyone sees him as a hero, and now he seems a bit shocked that almost nobody actually does. (Give the Miami fans some time, when his teams start accumulating 55-win seasons and second-round playoff exits.)

Players can, and do, leave their original teams all the time. But when they do, it’s generally for one of the following reasons:

1. They are significantly underpaid in their original market, and they are unlikely to come anywhere near their market value there.

2. They want desperately to win, and their current market seems unlikely to do so any time in the foreseeable future.

3. Team management decides to allow the player to leave, under the belief that they may be better equipped to win without the player or by replacing him at the position he plays.

4. The chemistry of their current team is unpleasant to the point that they want to play someplace else.

There are others, but those are the big ones that I generally see bandied about when players leave one team for another. And as far as I can tell, none of these really apply to Lebron James in Cleveland. They were prepared to pay him as massively as anyone else was; they’ve been a very good team in recent years; and…well, I can’t really speak to the third point. But I haven’t read anything about the Cav’s locker room being a hotbed of miscontent.

James’s willingness to leave Cleveland was clearly not motivated by money, and if James thinks he’s going to a more winning-conducive environment in Miami, everything I’ve read indicates that he’s likely mistaken. As for the last, well…maybe I’m wrong, but basketball has always struck me as the most prima donna-ridden of sports, and the Miami locker room will now have three prima donnas within it. If they don’t win, look for things to deteriorate quickly, and heck, it might happen anyway if they do win. Lots of winning teams end up falling apart not because they get bad again, but because their chemistry can’t be maintained.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is that no one thinks that Lebron James had a moral obligation to stay in Cleveland. Most folks, though, think that he had a moral obligation to not be a dick. And by any reasonable standards of dickishness, Lebron James was a dick of epic proportions.

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One Response to The point left a contrail above his head

  1. redsneakz says:

    I wouldn't have even mentioned LeBron in my semi-public life if not for this post.

    Yes, of course you're right about the thrust of the criticism being about the "how," not the "what."
    Also notable is the presence of large talent agency CAA in the mix, who represent all three pieces of the troika in Miami.

    Here's the thing, though; the NBA has clearly, for years now, been the league of the superstars, going back to Wilt and Bill; but the cooperation between Bosh and James and Wade shows the shift in power. Then end game,then, is that the lunatics run the asylum.

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