09 July 2010

King James, Hercules, and the Selfish Fan

As a pro-labor, pro-player sports blogger, I admit to feeling uncomfortable with the outlook of the "LeBron Should Stay In Cleveland" crowd. Athletes should have just as much leeway to change jobs as any other worker does, whether they want more money, better location, or better whatever. Athletes, however public, aren't our property. They have no more of an obligation to stay home than to be positive role models. Those who disagree say a lot more about our society than they do about professional sports.
And yet, LeBron's decision still rubs me the wrong way. Why? The answer has something to do with Greek mythology, microeconomics, and Garfield.

Look, it would have been nice had LeBron stayed in Cleveland, just as it would have been nice if A-Rod stayed in Seattle; just as it was nice that Joe Mauer is staying in Minnesota; just as it would be nice if Pujols stays in St. Louis. It's not right to stand in the way of someone chasing his or her dreams, but it's not wrong to hope that the people we admire value the same things we do, especially when they're tempted by something we value less.

And that's what it's all about, right? Chasing our dreams? LeBron chasing his? In Miami?

What bothers me the most is what this says about LeBron's aspirations. As a social scientist, I know that we can't directly observe preferences, only decisions. That said, we can gain insight to an someone's preferences by looking at their decisions in the context of the distribution of costs and benefits. So what are the costs and benefits that lurk(ed) behind each alternative? Let's consider that each choice varies along the following factors: loyalty, money, notoriety, comfort, and victory.

Alternative 1: New York

New York's obvious competitive advantages are notoriety and money. MSG is the world's most famous indoor arena, and NYC is the world's biggest stage for, well, everything. NYC is one of those places (along with LA) where everyone goes to become famous. But what's so great about fame if you can't enjoy it? Well, with fame comes endorsement deals. Sure, Florida has no state income tax, and only Cleveland (or a team with a player worth dealing) can pay the highest salary. But LeBron is so good, and NYC is so rich and famous, that King James could recoup the $12 million in taxes and the $10 million in lost salary simply by standing on 42nd Street and asking for handouts--or by telling Nike to pay him.

On the other hand, the Dolans have pretty much ensured that the Knicks will never ever win ever ever again (or until they sell, or pass away, and I'm not holding my breath for either). Few teams have looked so inept with so much cash since the owners of Cablevision put Isiah Thomas in charge of the Knickerbockers. And comfort? No setting would be less comfortable. There's no more uncomfortable place to be an athlete than in New York City. Just ask, well, anyone who's ever played there.

Choosing New York would have meant  choosing money and fame over comfort, victory and loyalty. This wouldn't have been the prettiest option, but it's perfectly in line with what we expect from modern professional athletes.

Alternative #2: Chicago

Chicago's obvious competitive advantage is victory. The Bulls have a supporting cast that's ready to win once they find their superstar. On top of that, they're not so shabby in the fame department, either. Chicago will forever be the Second City of the entertainment world, but when it comes to NBA history, the pantheon of polities includes LA, Boston (it was hard for me to type that), and Chicago. When we think of basketball, it's impossible not to think of Jordan, and by extension the Chicago Bulls.

And forget all the BS about LeBron not wanting to play in Jordan's shadow; one championship and King James' regal glow would have been sufficiently illuminating for the Windy City. I mean, seriously, does anyone talk about Kobe playing in the shadow of Magic and Kareem?

What Chicago is short on is money: the endorsements would be lesser, the taxes higher, the salary lower. Picking Chicago would have meant LeBron was picking winning and notoriety over money, loyalty, and comfort. Few fans outside of The Cleve could have faulted him for this.

Alternative #3: Cleveland

Does it look like Cleveland is about to sign a Pippen to his Jordan? Not really. Does it look like they're going to sign a Phil Jackson to his Jordan? Not unless you have a higher opinion of Byron Scott than I do. Can Cleveland offer the fame that NY or Chicago could have offered? Sorry, but nobody achieves immortality in Cleveland. Likewise, the endorsements would have been lesser.

Obviously, Cleveland's competitive advantage is loyalty--the only fixed factor in this model. Plus, the extra $10 million and the extra year that Cleveland could offer would be nice. Choosing Cleveland would have meant a choice for loyalty (and some money) over winning, comfort and notoriety. From a PR perspective, this would have been the most appealing option.

Alternative #4: Miami

So what's Miami's unique attraction? Is it fame? No, I mean Miami's a fun town and all but it doesn't have the spotlight of a New York or the basketball history of Chicago. What about money? Florida has no state income tax, but the fact that he took a discount (~$30 million in guaranteed money) that's larger than he would have had to pay in state taxes anywhere else, and that he forewent who-knows-how-much endorsement capital, indicates that money was not the driving factor.

So it must have been winning, right? I mean he's going to be playing with D-Wade and Chris Bosh, maybe Chris Paul in a couple years. Sounds like a dynasty in the making, right?


You can't win an NBA title with two superstars, one all-star, perhaps a role-player if they can make a trade before the season starts, and at least 8 minimum-salary scrubs. Maybe the Heat can trade, draft, and sign their way into the finals in a few years (especially if they get Paul), but for the next couple seasons I agree with the Sports Guy: the Heat are a ~50-win team with a core three who will endure way too much playing time and who are likely to step on each others' toes.

That leaves us with comfort, and I think this is the key factor. D-Wade and LeBron (and Paul and Bosh) are friends. Miami's a fun city without too much media scrutiny. It's beautiful--all the time. There's no shadow to play under, and no reputation that needs resurrection. What's more, LeBron never has to be top dog on the Heat: it's D-Wade's team and I doubt LeBron has any interest in changing that. By choosing Miami, LeBron would be choosing comfort over money, winning, fame and loyalty.

His will be done.

The Point

What's the point of this overlong, pedantic exercise? Well, it all gets back to LeBron's dreams, and our "ownership" of the pro athletes we root for (and against). I would have lauded LeBron if he chose loyalty (Cleveland). I would have revered him if he chose victory (Chicago). I would have respected him if he chose money or fame (New York). Who among us doesn't consider at least one of these traits a virtue, if not a qualified or fraught one?

One the other hand, nobody respects the guy who chooses comfort above all else.

Okay, that's a bit of exaggeration, but the number of people who do is a negligibly small constituency in the population of sports fans. For all intents and purposes, nobody we openly admire openly chooses comfort over money, comfort over victory, or comfort over loyalty. Our collective consciousness is rife with heroes who chose--or who were forced to accept--anguish and immortality in exchange for comfort and irrelevance.

These are the people we revere, in literature, in sports, and in faith: the ones who choose the path of Hercules, not the path of Garfield.

And that is why I'm uncomfortable with LeBron James' decision to go to Miami, and why I think many fans who didn't have any skin in this fight (like me) feel the same way. His choice says something about him that those of us--particularly those who admire professional athletes and athleticism--simply cannot accept: he whom we worship chose the easy path.

I simply don't see any other way around it. Look, there's nothing wrong with friendship. There's nothing wrong with having fun. It's just not appealing from the spectator's perspective. LeBron just guaranteed to all of us that he'll never have to prove himself the way that Jordan, Bird and Kareem did. He just squelched any possibility of a LeBron-Wade rivalry. But perhaps more importantly from the selfish fan's perspective, he took that which we projected upon him and discarded it.

I want to maintain perspective here. Remember: King James didn't violate any moral imperatives. Anyone who's pissed about this development needs to realize the selfishness inherent in their anger. And I'm with every single one of you. Sure, I wish LeBron all the best. I wish him rings, money, fame, friendship, women, and happiness.

Nevertheless, I (and I think, we) will always wish that LeBron lived up to the ideal that we collectively decided he should represent, and we'll always lament that he picked Garfield over Hercules.


Annie said...

Hey Jesse,

It's funny that you emphasized the role of comfort in Lebron's decision. Last night Christopher and I watched The Invention of Lying, but paused it in the middle to check in with "King James." Something about watching these two events simultaneously really highlighted for me the role of comfort in our society. Not just Lebron's comfort, but how highly Americans value leisure that we are willing to pay someone 100 million dollars to throw a ball in a circle. Sure, he is the best. But what do we pay the very best teachers, doctors, social workers? It struck me in the gut, how much we are willing to pay for entertainment, comfort. And yet there I was, participating, watching the ESPN special myself.

Watching this at the same time as the movie, which emphasizes the social role of lying, and how our efforts to make others happy often go awry, was an interesting contrast. While the movie emphasized the lies we tell others, the obsession with LeBron highlighted for me at least, the lies we tell ourselves.

Enjoyed your thoughts.

JD Mathewson said...

And I enjoyed yours!

I think when we focus on the individual salaries of the highest paid athletes we miss the point. $100 million is a lot to throw at one player, but that's because there are millions of doctors, teachers and social workers and only 360 starting pro-basketball players at any one time.

Next year's NBA salary cap is ~$60 million, or about $1.2 billion over 30 teams. We do spend more than that on education, medicine and social services--a lot more. We just spread it out over more and more people, which I think is a good thing.

Puneet said...

Big fan of this post, you touch on all the points involved in this from his freedom to do what he wants for himself to fans and their selfish nature to the dissection of LeBron's options and why the one he chose may have rubbed people the wrong way. And you didn't get hung up on the show being the circus that it was.

The one thing I disagree with is the idea that he put his personal comfort ahead of winning. You may not believe the "Miami Thrice" can be part of a championship formula, and you'd be far from alone, but LeBron does. I don't think he would have joined forces with them if he didn't think he had at least as good a chance to win with them as he did with Chicago, New York, or Cleveland. Throw in the comfort of playing with his buddies in a less stressful environment like Miami and that put going to the Heat over the top.

Personally I'm still not sure if the Thrice is a good or bad idea. I keep goin back to the Celtics, when they got their Big 3 in 2007-08, their supporting cast was very suspect but turned out to be great, especially Rondo. On the other hand, i see LeBron and Wade more likely to step on each other's toes than Pierce/Allen.

JD Mathewson said...

Yeah, I've considered that possibility, that LeBron really thought Miami gave him the best chance of winning. If so, I think that was a miscalculation. By any objective standpoint, the Bulls would have been a better fit for winning, and in the short run I think even the Cavs were a better fit.

The bigger point is that comfort, or fun, or pleasure, whatever you want to call it, so clearly played a role, even if we're willing to assume that LeBron thought Miami was the best place for a championship. It simply doesn't jive with the expectations we have for our modern idols. That is, in my opinion, the root of the problem.

As for Miami, I'd be very, very surprised if their supporting cast was as good as the championship Celts. Boston had more resources left over after KG/Pierce/Allen than Miami does after Wade/LeBron/Bosh, and like you indicate I think they had a bit of luck as well. And I think it was clear to Ray Ray and Paul Pierce that they were both second bananas to Garnett, whereas I don't think LeBron is going to put himself on the same shelf as Bosh.

JD Mathewson said...

That said, I appreciate your compliments. I think the circus speaks for itself, and that others have covered it pretty well. I'm not sure any public figure has ever gone from so likable to so unlikeable so quickly without committing a crime or cheating on his partner.

Puneet said...

Frankly I think that's an interesting debate in itself, whether loading up on three stars makes the team a superpower or limits too much the resources to build a supporting cast. I think Miami's banking on the three (I've decided I don't like the "Miami Thrice" nickname) to make everyone around them better. Obviously we'll find out when the season starts but I can see it going either way.

mikepnq said...

Fantastically written and analyzed. A few points - the Celtics had far more resources based on the room under the cap they still had (which you already pointed out) and the young players they had drafted (Glen Davis in addition to Rondo). Also, Garnett was the leader on defense, but Pierce was clearly the man at the end of games (watch the clip from the '08 quarterfinals against Cleveland - the dive for the ball where Pierce beat Lebron was a defining moment for both players). Lebron has never been that guy. He was outplayed by Pierce, Dwight Howard/Rashard Lewis, Tim Duncan/Tony Parker, etc. This was, to me, what the Decision was really about - Lebron's desire to not have to be the man. D-Wade has that instinct; he showed it in the '06 finals. Lebron hasn't yet, and I don't know if he ever will.

JD Mathewson said...

Thanks, Mike. I agree entirely.

JD Mathewson said...

By the way, it's obvious by now but I think it's worth mentioning since I think it proves my point. LeBron didn't have to say he was taking his talents to "South Beach," he could have said Miami.

But he didn't.

I think that says a lot about where his mind is.