Athletes and the cities they play in

The drama and saga of LeBron James, city of Cleveland, and community of South Beach (Miami) has brought to light the natural tension between professional athletes and the cities where they play.  While some athletes are more altruistic than others, it is hard to imagine any player who would sign a contract in the range of the average American household income: $46,000.   In fact, if statistically you are the best player in your sport, it’s hard to imagine signing a salary equivalent to the tenth-best athlete.

Some cities, particularly the less glamorous ones, ask players to give the “home-town discount,” because that city and the organization has treated the player so well.  The “home-town discount” actually does occur from time to time, but it is, without exception,  minimal.

The reaction to LeBron James’ move to South Beach was obviously great joy in Miami.  However, for South Floridians, this may be one of those “be careful for what you wish” scenarios: The Miami Heat just became the most disliked team in the N.B.A.  Cleveland has received  appropriate support and empathy from the sports media, even political columnists (see Maureen Dowd), and fans, particularly those in the Rust Belt.  However, this love affair with Cleveland may be short-lived, as the Cavaliers will likely join the ranks of also-ran teams in the league, with no discernible star player.

King James (as LeBron allows himself to be called) clearly did not act like a prince as Decision-Day came closer.  He hyped the suspense and then arranged for ESPN to give him an hour of air time to hype his decision (not a tough sell, since ESPN clearly cashed in on it).  Despite Mr. James’ many words of modesty, the message was clear: “It’s all about me.”

So, outside the South Beach metropolitan area, LeBron is the one who broke up what was thought to be a strong relationship, while Cleveland stands as the jilted lover.  For those who like to view issues as “good vs. evil,” Cleveland has our support and LeBron our disdain.

However, the issue may be far more complicated than the way in which much of the media has played it, LeBron has reinforced it, and the public’s desire to see issues in simplistic terms might like.

If we care to try to get over our anger, we might consider the following, which may put LeBron James’ decision in at least a neutral light:

In general, sports team owners are model for operating in their own self-interest; often treating players as property.  This issue came to a head in 1970, when baseball star Curt Flood objected to being traded by the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. With the help of players union, he took major league baseball’s reserve clause to court.  Unlike most players, Flood passed up the opportunity for a lucrative contract in order stand on principle.  He stated:

“After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.

It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decision. I, therefore, request that you make known to all Major League clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.”

A player may be quite comfortable with the city in which he or she has been playing.  However, as is the case in every industry, an employee may not like the team’s owners.  Perhaps that was the case with LeBron James.  Consider what Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert said following James’ decision:

“As you now know, our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier.

This was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his “decision” unlike anything ever “witnessed” in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment.

Clearly, this is bitterly disappointing to all of us.

The good news is that the ownership team and the rest of the hard-working, loyal, and driven staff over here at your hometown Cavaliers have not betrayed you nor NEVER will betray you.

There is so much more to tell you about the events of the recent past and our more than exciting future. Over the next several days and weeks, we will be communicating much of that to you.

You simply don’t deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal.

You have given so much and deserve so much more.

In the meantime, I want to make one statement to you tonight:


If  Gilbert’s words reflect his general management style and respect for those who have served him well, then maybe LeBron James was justified leaving for reasons that had nothing to do with the city of Cleveland.  He may have wanted to get away from an ungrateful owner.

A player may simply want to play for a different team where (a) his closest friend(s) play, or (b) where the strategy that the coach /manager takes is more consistent with his/her preferences [e.g. an NFL quarterback who would prefer to play for a “pass-happy” coach]; (c) a player wishes to get away from certain players or “bad elements” associated with the team where he or she has played; (d) a member of the player’s family would strongly prefer to move on.  An excellent example of the opposite of this was several years ago when St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Russ Springer chose to stay with St. Louis because he and his wife felt that the best services for his autistic child was at the Judevine Center in St. Louis (now called TouchPoint Autism Services).

LeBron James had every right to take his talents from Cleveland to South Beach.   I wonder if he has ever heard of Curt Flood, who made this move possible.  But perhaps he was being a gentleman by not trashing the Cavaliers’ owner in the way in which Mr. Gilbert castigated him.  It’s a complicated situation; it doesn’t feel good; but it’s definitely food for thought.