LeBron James: The Free Black Athlete

Source: Keith Reed/Ebony

Clutch. Traitor. Gutless. Fearless. Champion. Choke Artist. Exactly what fans believe LeBron James to be is subject with as many variables an algebraic equation. And after his decision to opt out of a contract that would have paid him nearly $20.6 million to play for the Miami Heat next year, there’s no reason to expect sanity to be introduced to the conversation.

There’s a problem with defining Lebron James, even a decade into his career with plenty of ball left to play, by his prowess or failures on the court. As empty and subjective as the term is, James’ most meaningful legacy is already solidified, and it happened by virtue of exactly the thing that made so many fans keep up this loathsome game of ‘Bron bashing. James has mastered free agency. In doing so, he’s become the living embodiment of laissez-faire economics, inasmuch as the principle can be applied to an athlete bound to an oligopoly by a union-negotiated labor pact. The financial clout of NBA owners–a group which three years ago locked out players compensated by the billions rather than disclose how much coin the owners rake in off their labor– no longer matters to him.

Lebron is the singular, emancipated athlete in all of American professional team sports. Excepting Floyd Mayweather, who rakes in so much from his fights that he pays his own opponents out of his pocket, James may be the only truly free athlete in America. He is the anti-“$40 Million Slave,” enriching himself by wringing more ownership and more control out of every new deal, and creating considerable clout for his contemporaries at the same damn time.

Only if you were paying close enough attention could you have envisioned what James has accomplished. In hindsight it should have been obvious that what most regarded as blunders were part of a strategy from which Lebron and his team never wavered. In 2005, he canned his agent and formed his own personal branding enterprise with friends from high school to represent him. In ‘10 he went on ESPN — under the auspices of a charity fundraiser — to announce he was leaving his hometown team, ringless, to play ball with his friends by the beach.
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