This summer we’ve all heard or read something negative about NBA star LeBron James and “The Decision” to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. I know I’m in the minority when I say I completely understand and celebrate his decision.
It seems as though the masses have written off America’s best basketball player today as the latest self-indulged superstar (even though he accepted less money to go to Miami), which is a tremendous fall from his status as one of the more admired professional sports figures.
The reaction by Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert and subsequent statements by Rev. Jesse Jackson, coupled with strong media attention, elevated the matter beyond a simple career decision by an athlete. It all forces me to ask: If James were white, would this have happened?
Gilbert’s tyrannical open letter to Cavs’ fans led Rev. Jackson to say “he speaks as an owner of LeBron and not the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers.” His comments highlight a long brewing sentiment in the African-American community about confusing prominent black athletes with “$40 million slaves.” Some may dismiss this view as playing the race card, but frankly it is a very common feeling among African-Americans.
Intentional or not, James has now joined the likes of Muhammad Ali, Curt Flood, Moses Malone and Michigan’s Fab 5, as trendsetting African-American athletes who rocked the establishment and revolutionized the American sports landscape.
Any move James makes is colossal. His impending free agency threatened to overshadow the Lakers and Celtics in the NBA finals. His courtship by several NBA teams pleading for his services was must-see reality television.
What disturbed me most was hearing Cleveland fans and media make comments like “LeBron owes us” and “we allowed him to make millions playing basketball.” As fans, we do purchase tickets, souvenirs and concessions for the games. Ticket sales plus lucrative TV contracts fund players’ salaries.
Fans have a right to say what they want, but the free-market American economy “allows” professional athletes to be paid. James, like most employees, had a marketable skill and was simply paid what the market dictated. He produced tangible results that improved his employer’s bottom line.
As an athlete who understands that he is an actual business, James leveraged his fame for what essentially became an hour-long, national LeBron James infomercial. This was a savvy business decision, one that any other forward-thinking company would make.
Even if you disapprove of how James announced his choice, he should be credited for donating all “The Decision” sponsorship money — reportedly $2.5 million — to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
In my two decades participating in elite level athletics, including providing business and legal counsel to professional athletes for the last seven years, I have witnessed the sad statistic recently cited by Sports Illustrated that approximately 80 percent of professional athletes are broke two years after their playing careers are finished.
James is smart to take every opportunity to build a sustainable business that has the capacity to flourish beyond his finite playing career. Would Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet or any other business superstar turn down the opportunity to do the same?
LeBron’s decision should be celebrated as a classic American dream fulfilled. A gifted individual defies conventional wisdom and makes an unpopular decision without fear of — or at least being willing to endure — the repercussions because it’s what’s best for his family