So LeBron James is opting out of his contract with the Miami Heat, and of course on Twitter the result was the regularly-expected storm of condemnation. Partially this is leftover blowback from “The Decision,” which everybody hated because LeBron arrogantly decided to reveal an enormous piece of sporting news on national television (and in the process forced ESPN to donate millions to charity, something most people forget). But partially it’s the result of two mindsets towards professional athletes, neither of which is terribly healthy.
The first mindset is distinctly authoritarian in tone, which is to say: “LeBron owes the fans.” The question of how much LeBron or any player owes their fans is, of course, never quantified, because the operating principle behind this mindset is that LeBron or any other professional athlete should just be goddamned grateful that they get to play a game and be paid money to do so. The second mindset is dismissive (and far more prevalent on the left side of the political spectrum, where jokes about “sportsball” are annoyingly common from people who should frankly have more common sense than to disparage something many people enjoy simply because it’s not their thing) and stems from the idea that professional athletes don’t deserve the money they earn because professional sports themselves are bad.
What is common to both mindsets is that athletes are, in some way, different from other workers. In fairness, this is true in some ways: in North America most athletes are still unionized, which makes them relative outliers on the labour spectrum, and have levels of job protection that most people cannot get any more. But that doesn’t change the nature of the fact that professional athletes are still labourers, and in many ways more purely exemplify the value of labour in the labour-capital relationship more than any other business you can conceive. After all, if you don’t have players, then you don’t have a sport. And yet, in professional sports, most leagues only have half of the revenue at most going to the players without whom there would be no league (and it is often less).
Which is why LeBron choosing to opt out of his contract early to become a free agent is important. He put that clause in his contract – as did Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – because they all agreed that they wanted to try and win as many championships as possible, to create a team for the ages, and if it didn’t work out then they could go their separate ways or try to retool as necessary after a few years. And the results have been reasonably good: four straight NBA Finals appearances, two championships. That is pretty impressive. But, following the 2014 NBA Finals – where the Heat were whipped like a mule by the San Antonio Spurs, who were fundamentally a better and smarter team and where the Heat’s previous reliance on athletic, smart attack failed them when LeBron turned out to be the only star athlete left on the Heat – it’s clear that the Heat no longer have what it takes to win championships reliably.
(An aside: this is typically the point where some fans will complain about the obvious collusion on the part of LeBron, Bosh and Wade to play together, which doesn’t make any sense when you think about it: why should we condemn players for deciding to create a superteam when, if it was achieved through trades/free agency by a team, we would be celebrating smart management? This all goes back to that authoritarian mindset.)
This is exactly the scenario that LeBron, Wade and Bosh envisioned when they all signed with the Heat for a bit less than they otherwise could have commanded in free agency: the model does not work now. Time to find a new one – whether that means each of them going their own separate ways, or each of them terminating their contracts and re-signing with the Heat for less money so the Heat can afford to sign additional quality players.
It may not work; LeBron has opted out, presumably to force the Heat’s hand, but the biggest reason he’s opting out is because Wade might decide he wants to keep his $20 million per year, because nobody in their right mind signs Dwyane Wade to a deal for anything more than half that at this point, and even $10 million a year might be comparatively generous for a player who cannot under any realistic circumstances play starter minutes as a star player any longer. But that, too, goes back to what’s fair for workers: nobody forced the Miami Heat to sign Dwyane Wade to a $20 million contract. Why should Wade give up $42 million over the next two years to make other people happy? That’s a lot of money. Wade can do what he thinks is best for him and LeBron can do what he thinks is best for him (and for LeBron, that’s winning titles).
Of course, none of this really matters, because at the end of the day this is purely about envy. The people complaining about LeBron opting out are, at root, complaining that he makes a very large amount of money (regardless of the fact that he is legitimately the best in the world at what he does and that there is an insane market demand for what he does, a demand that is so great that frankly the NBA salary rules are restricting LeBron from earning what he could conceivably get from teams did those rules not exist), and generally also complaining that they do not. That’s all it is. That’s all it really ever was. And it’s a bit of a problem, because when people are opposed to workers engaging with their own basic labour rights – with workers using the terms of the contracts they negotiated to their own advantage – it’s the beginning of a slippery slope.