What’s LeBron supposed to have done wrong?

Did he owe something to the Cavs, or to Cleveland? What, exactly? And why?

I enjoy a powerful indifference to basketball: fun game to play, boring to watch. So I lack any emotional reaction at all to the LeBron James saga.

That said, Mike’s post leaves me puzzled. Apparently, in Mike’s eyes, Mr. James has done something he shouldn’t have by leaving Cleveland for Miami. And it has something to do with preferring his own advantage over that of the team or the city and region it purports to represent.

That suggests that James had an obligation of some sort to the Cavs or to Cleveland, that made his departure an outrage while the migration of an academic from, let’s say, Northwestern to Yale to U. Va. in search of a fancier title, bigger salary, higher-caliber students and colleagues, or a more pleasant environment in which to live and raise a family is normal and expected.

But what does that obligation consist of, and how did James incur it? Did the team or the city do something in particular to help make him a star, such that his departure represents ingratitude? My understanding is that he did not choose the Cavs, but was assigned to that team in the draft. Surely, having been the victim of a conspiracy in restraint of trade, forced to negotiate with a monopsonist buyer of one’s talents, can’t create an obligation of loyalty to the monopsonist if, when the term of the indenture is up, another employer offers a more attractive deal?

As one of Mike’s commenters mentions, sports stars are the frequent targets of moralizing. It’s hard to separate this phenomenon from race and class: pro sports is one of the few very few ways of moving from the bottom income quintile to the top income percentile that won’t land you in prison, especially if you’re black or Latino. So sports stars attract some of the opprobruim traditionally directed at the parvenu in aristocratic societies: the “base-born counselors” around the King that are a traditional grievance of not only rebellious nobles but of commoners as well. Mocking the parvenu is one way of asserting that the underlying structure of inherited status is fundamentally sound.

Now I can’t image that’s what Mike is up to. But I wish he’d make the gravamen of Mr. James’s supposed offense clear to the uninitiated. As to his puzzlement about how one could possibly spend $27 million a year, there are three obvious answers.

First, the combination of cocaine, hookers, big houses, luxury travel, designer clothing, and fast cars can absorb almost any amount of money, as more than one sports star and more than one rock star has demonstrated by dying broke. That’s not a very edifying way of spending mountains of cash, but it does explain why someone with more money than Mike or I can imagine spending might still want more.

Second, all of us have relatives and friends who encounter difficulty that might be eased with some money. That’s even more true of those who grow up poor. The impulse to help is, it seems to me, a praiseworthy one, and it has no natural upper bound.

Third, money is control over resources, for non-personal as well as personal uses. Imagine that the Heat offered James a deal that will net him, over the balance of his career, $20 million more than the Cavs were willing to offer. Now imagine that he decided to spend 10% of that gain on female literacy programs in Africa and another 10% of it on college scholarships for kids from the Cleveland ghetto, or decided instead that the money would have more leverage donated to Democratic Congressional and Senate candidates and to the party committees, to overcome the $200 million the plutocracy plans to stump up to defeat the socialist Obama. Is it vaguely conceivable that James would have done more good by staying where he was and not giving away that money?

So my second instinct, after saying “Who gives a damn one way or the other?” is to say “If LeBron James decided that his talents and efforts would be better rewarded in Miami than in Cleveland, then he had no obligation not to act on that decision.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

24 thoughts on “What’s LeBron supposed to have done wrong?”

  1. If he did anything "wrong", it was to make such a spectacle of his leaving Cleveland. I think what he did owe them was some degree of respect. His "indenture", as you call it, ended in July, 2006 when he signed a three-year extension to his original contract.

    Though I think his leaving the way he did was classless, the one saving grace is that he left around $15 million dollars on the table that the Cavs would have paid him. I think that shows that it wasn't really about money. While he may lack the killer instinct that many hoped he had, he doesn't appear particularly greedy.

  2. As I said in other thread, I couldn't care less where LeBron James plays, but his self-glorification during the announcement and his total disregard for Cleveland and the other teams was a total turn off. It's arrogance like that that make people hate players and teams.

    I also don't like — and this is not James' fault — that apparently three players at the Heat will make all the money and the guys they pass the ball to all game are making not even a tenth of what the top three will be making.

  3. Mark, I'm glad to see you making an argument for trickle-down economics as your third outlined way for Lebron to spend his millions. I'm a New York Knicks fan who was hoping for the remote possibility that the Big Apple could scoop up Lebron, but knowing deep down that it would be another missed opportunity because a) the Knicks franchise haven't been able to get anything right in terms of recruiting for the past 15 years, and b) NYC would impose at least an additional $12 million in taxes on Lebron which is a strong disincentive for going to the Knicks. Based on your 10% rule, Lebron will contribute an additional $1.2 million to the good of society by not going to New York. Bad for Knicks fans, good for humankind.

  4. The TV special was an over-the-top misjudgment. Whatever way he had announced his decision, however, the story would not have been much different. The coverage was in full and intense swing long before that TV program was announced. LeBron James was entitled to switch teams; it is a good thing that players now have a significant element of freedom of choice; and exalted status as a player and the surrounding circumstances made this a huge sports story in ways he could not control. Those circumstances include league and contract rules that tightly constricted the timing of the negotiations and decision. What did LeBron do wrong? Some PR mistakes, but over all, not much.

  5. Mocking the parvenu is one way of asserting that the underlying structure of inherited status is fundamentally sound.

    I have family in NE Ohio, and all you hear on the matter from radio and other commentary is about spitting on those who helped him get where he is, turning his back on where he made good, etc.

  6. I won't fault LeBron for leaving, but he did grow up in Akron and spend his entire pre-professional basketball career there (I believe we call it "highschool"). Ohio wasn't simply a lucky monopolist.

  7. I think that part of it is that James, Wade, and Bosh turned themselves into the Yankees with the way they came together. People have a strong sense of honor when it comes to sports – they feel that there's a right way and a wrong way to excel. Spending way more than anyone else to buy up the best talent and create an all-star team, as the Yankees do, is a wrong way, so everyone loves to hate them. Other sports are designed with a salary cap to prevent a Yankees from arising, but now three superstars got together, decided they wanted to create their team of stars, and are shrinking their contracts to get around the Yankee-prevention restrictions.

    Another reason for the outcry is that it's starting to look like James, Wade, and Bosh coordinated and planned this from the start. The whole spectacle was just a charade – no one else ever had a chance.

  8. Mark, I don't disagree with your last statement at all. Lebron is entitled to earn his living wherever and however he chooses. Still, I think one key point that you fail to address is that there is no inherent value in what LeBron James does. He's not selling goods or building roads or anything else. Being one of the best basketball players in the world is a lucrative profession only because people care deeply about the fortunes of "their" teams, on emotional rather than rational grounds. I agree with you that there is some nonsense being spouted about this issue, and fans would have turned on Lebron in a minute if his skills had declined. Still, Cleveland is among the most passionate cities in support of its pro teams despite little success–no championships in any major sport since the early 1950s. Lebron profited from that support because of ticket sales and jersey sales and other items. If one wants to declare all of pro sports silly, then that's fine. But athletes are hardly in a position to profit handsomely from the passion of pro sports fans, and then complain when they react emotionally when they go elsewhere.

    While he had the right to leave, the way he did it, staging an hour-long TV show to essentially give the finger to his home region, was just bad behavior, regardless of his obvious right to work wherever he wants. And as others have noted, Lebron took less money to go elsewhere. Again, that's his right, but I think that may make it worse for Cleveland.

    As for the stuff about indentured servitude and stuff, it's important to point out that the Cavaliers and Heat are not analogous to Lowe's and Home Depot. Unlike typical business competitors, pro sports teams want to defeat each other on the field/court, but need each other to exist and to provide an acceptable level of competition. The draft and contract structure have been collectively bargained for. The "conspiracy" that you decry is essential to the success of pro sports and to creating the lucrative salaries collected by players like Lebron.

  9. Mark Twain: I haven't heard anything like that since the orphanage burned down…

    Adrian Wojnarowski who normally writes a reasonable basketball column for Yahoo Sports is a "fantastic" barometer of the skirling. His column on LeBron, (Easy come, easy go for King James) is so emotionally over the top it ought to embarrass even extreme internet haters lurking in comment threads. Listen to Adrian whine:

    "This was the champagne shower for the Championship of Me, an exercise in self-aggrandizement and self-loathing that will have far-reaching implications for the NBA and James. What a spectacle, what a train wreck."

    And then watch Adrian twist in an "official knife" for good effect:

    “His brand is [bleep] now,” one high-level NBA official said late Thursday. “He’s destroyed everything.”

    And then Adrian knows, when you got the big dog down, kick the loser in the head and make sure he's dead:

    "The Championship of Me became the Championship of Flee, because LeBron James doesn’t believe he can be the centerpiece of a title team. He needed Dwyane Wade, a closer, far more than Wade needed him."

    All that's just sad…

    Not just because it is so over the top emotional…

    And not even because its a lot of hooey over grown men chasing a ball around in shorts…

    Nor because it is an indictment of the culture that makes celebrity worship the norm…

    And not even because this epidemic of fawning face-painting fans means the break-ups are so painful…

    But because:

    If the Adrian Wojnarowskis of the world gave just one-tenth of the emotion they give to LeBron, instead to global warming: Something might actually get done about it. What a nation of whiny losers and victims we've become…

  10. If the Adrian Wojnarowskis of the world gave just one-tenth of the emotion they give to LeBron, … [fill in blank].

    The sad thing here is that apparently nine million people watched the TV show. Nine million. Three percent of the country.

  11. I think different people are angry about different things, but almost nobody is writing about how badly they feel for Dan Gilbert – the Cav's owner. Instead, sympathy lies with Cleveland fans, whose interests line up with those of Dan Gilbert. The people of Cleveland who spent their hard-earned money to see Lebron, bought his jersey, and cared about him deserve to be treated kindly – not just as his customers (in the star system $ derive from fans) but also because he seemed to enjoy their cheers and support these last seven years. Whether or not he decided to stay, he could have and should have treated the Cavs fans more kindly.

  12. When LeBron James says of his move from his lifelong home in Ohio to Miami "It’s all about family here" he reveals himself to have a very different conception of what is and isn't family. Home is where you hang your hat is a fair enough sentiment but you don't get to reap the benefits of being the local hero, basketball savior, and "chosen one" AND choose to live in South Beach where you aren't the chosen one but one of three, you aren't saving a franchise, you are going to a franchise that has an established star with a better resume than your own, and preach the wonders of Miami's famed family environment. You can do these things, none of which have anything to do with economics, but you look like a heel when you do so. And LeBron James has revealed himself as a heal.

  13. It's not what James did, it's how he did it. There was a lot of hoopla and self-promotion from the James camp. This ticks off the sports media, a body that believes no one is bigger them. It also ticks off the old school guys who like their athletes humble and self abasing.

    I'd bet that any survey looking at this from a generational perspective would find that young guys loved the whole thing.

    Just for the record, I'm 61. I'm old enough to still think no player is bigger than the game, whatever the sport.

    But times are changing, and the New Guard is with LeBron.

  14. This is a rather absurd post, for several reasons.

    Obviously the way LeBron handled this was poor, but if I spent my time pointing out bad etiquette I'd never have time for anything else. LBJ is a narcissist with poor manners, in NBA circles he is just one of hundreds. Whatever.

    But paragraphs, such as the second to last are built entirely on hypotheticals (that are incorrect to boot). This premise that 'what if the Heat paid him more and he donated it here…' is bunk, and a central reason Clevelanders are so upset. You see the Cavs COULD (and DID) offer the most, because the NBA has a clause in its CBA call the (Larry) Bird Exemption (the drafting team owns a players 'Birds Rights' as long as he plays there, or they travel with him if he's traded elsewhere). It's obvious from several of your points here you are completely unaware of this clause. Which is fine, it's certainly something only pretty serious NBA basketball junkies know. But to write this post under the banner "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts" would make me blush. Actually a general misunderstanding of LeBron's entire life, background, the NBA contract structure, NBA free agency, NBA salary sap, NBA in general is present in this post. You don't follow basketball (you admit to that in the first line), that's fine. But why then would you feel the world needs an essay from you on the workings of the NBA, and it's central star. I don't like country music, so you won't be seeing a critique of it from me in the future. It's something I can't speak on, or care to. Anything I'd say on the matter–to a serious intelligent follower–would be embarrassing. Perhaps you can take this as advice in the future.

    Then there is something like this: "migration of an academic from, let’s say, Northwestern to Yale to U. Va. in search of a fancier title, bigger salary, higher-caliber students and colleagues, or a more pleasant environment in which to live and raise a family is normal and expected." All this is a weighted (in your favor) moot point. Of course someone would probably choose this option in these shoes, but in James' case not one is applicable. The Heat could offer less money and years (see above), less appeal (look at ticket numbers in Cleveland when LBJ was there compared to Miami: The Cavs sold out every game each of the past three plus seasons plus playoffs, Miami had seats remaining in its lowest bowl–the most desired tickets– for its playoff series last May against Boston), 'a more pleasant environment' is debatable (but I must defer to James who has said he loves his hometown, and will always consider his heart to be in Akron right down to its area code '330' tattoo on his body). As for better 'title' he has the highest 'title' in his profession: Professional NBA player. Will this change where he goes? Absolutely not. If anything his 'title' takes a hit there, as he was THE alpha dog in Cleveland, and all of Ohio. Now he's merely one part of a three star team.

    Finally, this notion that LeBron owes nothing to Cleveland. I'll omit that LeBron himself said his 'job' in Cleveland wasn't finished until he brought home a championship etc. and merely discuss the notion of Community. Do we owe anything to those around us? To the ones that have helped build our fortunes? Help us become the talents/people we are today? I think so. You say 'No' (or one must assume that is your stance after reading your thoughts here). Does the BP CEO owe anything to the Gulf Region? I bet in this instance you'd say yes. But in terms of LBJ you say 'No'. It takes a community to raise a child, this is the liberal creed I agree with… and in this case it's literally true. LeBron was the product of an undisclosed past: his mother was a crack cocaine addicted 15 year old, who in early years (and beyond) of LeBron's life she dabbled in prostitution (LBJ's father–or the man with the highest possibility of being this person–is in prison the last I heard). This isn't to defame her: these are the facts. LeBron's savior became the game of basketball, and when his talent was seen at an early age he joined Cleveland/Akron area AAU teams (funded by coaches, bake sales, and community resources). Several times when his mother couldn't make ends meet he'd live with coaches, teachers, ect (or outright in State funded low-income housing). His last, and most significant, home was with his HS coach the Joyce's (who also pulled the strings to get him into prestigious SVSM). Here LBJ came to fame and was protected the best this area could do and in turn his exposure grew and he was drafted into the NBA. So does LBJ 'owe' this area anything? I can't say for sure, but I can say that area did him a lot better then he did them this past week. (and I don't want to imply that the children we help are akin to indentured servants for the remainder of their lives, I just want to point out that that community did offer–and give– LeBron James virtually everything he now has)

    An epilogue is this: Dru' Joyce Sr. (the man closest to a father, and whose hospitality rescued LBJ from the streets as a preteen/teen and I mentioned above as his HS coach) was reported to have been told a week before 'The Decision' to his face from LeBron that he was going to remain in the area, as a Cavalier, past this year and beyond. Now a week later he's a Miami Heat small forward. Does Joyce Sr. deserve honesty? Do parents/mentors deserve honesty? Do all humans deserve some smattering of decency from each other?

    I'll let you answer that, I know which side I'm on…

  15. Oh and on the topic of 'monopolizing' LeBron James, it's incorrect. First, as someone above pointed out, this is moot after LeBron resigns after his initial rookie contract. At this point the choice is his. Second, the NBA has no version of a 'Franchise Tag' as the NFL does. So if you want to make that argument, make it in an NFL discussion.

  16. Nick Hornby's autobiographical "Fever Pitch" is a splendid exploration of the pyschology of the sports fan (in his case,soccer, and specificaslly the London club Arsenal). From this, it seems that soccer fans don't expect the mercenaries who wear the team shirt for a season or two to share their own deep, long-terms and irrational attachment to the club. Hornby is very good on football vs. marriage. (Guess which comes off worse in the true fan's life). What's shocking to a European is the American habit of moving team franchises from one city, and hence community of fans, to another hundreds of miles away.

  17. Wimberley says: "What’s shocking to a European is the American habit of moving team franchises from one city, and hence community of fans, to another hundreds of miles away." What's shocking to an American is the overt racism exhibited by a goodly number of European soccer fans and that it is still allowed to continue. Seems a bit more problematical than moving a team. Perhaps the European shock of which you speak is a case of continental displacement.

  18. The Bosman ruling in the EU controls player movements and is widely accepted by fans. If a player doesn't want to play for a team anymore he can be sold for a transfer fee and the proceeds used to pay for players that do want to play. Because movement is more fluid and player contracts are more flexible in soccer (clubs can take a bath on the transfer fee paid for a stinker of a signing and move on, sunk costs and all that) I think fans are far more understanding of player moves.


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