By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and The Sunday Sun
ABOVE PHOTO: Workers dismantle the 10-story-tall iconic image of James on a mural in downtown Cleveland on Saturday, July 10, 2010. The billboard that has dominated the city’s skyline for years is being taken down now that the superstar has left the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. Pedestrians stopped on Ontario Street to take photos and cars pulled to the side for one last look at No. 23, who has gone from being a hometown hero to villain.
(AP Photo/The Plain Dealer, John Kuntz)
I hadn’t intended to weigh in on the whole nationally-televised hype regarding LeBron James free agent choice, but seeing and hearing all the reaction regarding James’ choice of the Miami Heat as his new team and how he spurned the Cleveland Cavaliers, all I have to say is the hypocrisy on both sides of the fence is utterly fascinating.
While all of Cleveland is decrying James’ lack of loyalty to the city and the Cavaliers, his jumping ship to the Miami Heat for what presumably is a bigger and better deal is par for the course in a world where big business and people with money can operate with impunity if the price is right.
If you thought James announcing his “divorce” from Cleveland before a nationally-televised audience on ESPN was bizarre, the bitter response from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert was simply over the top. He referred to James act of spurning the Cavaliers as “cowardly betrayal.”
“The self-declared former ‘King’ will be taking the ‘curse’ with him down south,” Gilbert wrote on the team’s website. “And until he does ‘right’ by Cleveland and Ohio, James [and the town where he plays] will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma.”
C’mon, Mr. Gilbert tell us how you really feel, dude.
The words ‘loyalty’ and ‘betrayal’ have been used in all the media to attack James for his much ballyhooed move to Miami. On one level, you can understand the outrage on the part of fans in Cleveland because, in the last 25 years, their hearts have been ripped apart by their sports teams, whether you’re talking about losing three times to the Broncos in the AFC Championship in the 1980s or Art Modell moving the Browns to Baltimore.
Following all of the back and forth stuff in this drama confirms for me one thing that we all have to remember even as we enjoy our favorite players scoring those touchdowns and hitting all the big baskets is that words like ‘loyalty’ and ‘virtue’ really mean nothing in the world of the sports. Like everything else in American capitalism, it is about money and accolades (which, in sports, leads to even more money). Just ask the myriad of American corporations that have shipped American jobs to Third World countries in order to make more money.
What the millionaire athlete James did is no different than what billionaire owners of sports teams and what most corporations have been doing over the last 30 years; he moved himself to a location where he can further maximize his earning potential and his chance to win a championship.
The last 30 years has seen an vast increase in the movement of sports franchises to new cities where local politicians give them all sorts of sweetheart incentives; we’ve also witnessed the increasing mobility of free agent athletes who jump from small markets to places like New York for the big bucks. This is the game, yo–haven’t we figured it out, yet?
Expecting the players or the owners to be loyal to the communities they play in belies the intractable reality that money and the opportunity to make a few extra bucks trumps both nobility and whatever morality there is in sports. In fact, those of us who work 9 to 5 will pull up stakes in one town to move to another in a hot minute if we saw an opportunity to increase our paychecks.
For as much Gilbert lambasted James for dropping his team like yesterday’s garbage, how many times has the Cavaliers owner made decisions to benefit the profitability of the franchise at the expense of loyalty? Was Gilbert loyal to former head coach Mike Brown or former general manager Danny Ferry, the two men most responsible for Cleveland’s success during James tenure there?
Gilbert thought getting rid of those guys for new management was a better deal for his team and his best chance to put a winner on the floor–and loyalty had nothing to do with it.
And so James’ allegiance wasn’t to the city of Cleveland or its NBA franchise, but to position himself to win that elusive NBA title. To make you feel better and to let you know it’s not all about dollars and cents, James will even tell you that he’s taking less money to join forces with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. In the end, the bigger and better deal prevailed over any notion of loyalty to the city or his fans.
What always bothers me, though, is that fans and the media like to blame the players for spurning their communities. Owners like Gilbert decried James lack of loyalty to the team. But when the owners are finished using up the best years of a player’s brief lifespan, that allegiance unceremoniously disappears.
In Philadelphia in 2008, fans were outraged that former free safety Brian Dawkins wasn’t re-signed by the team even though he made the Pro Bowl in his final year in an Eagles uniform and had been active in the community throughout his career. Back in 1973, Baltimore Colts great Johnny Unitas wasn’t allowed to finish out his career with his team, which angered fans in Baltimore. Again, it was about business.
While we like to attach ourselves to our favorite ball players and teams, it is important to remember that they are ultimately governed by the cold dictates of the marketplace or their own selfish quest for a championship. Players will jump teams for money and the possibility of winning that ring. Owners will move a team to another city if it will line his pockets with more money or get a rid of a longtime player when his usefulness is up.
It’s not about any abstract allegiance to a city, a team or an individual player, it’s about loyalty to the players or owners own self interest and ability to earn as much money as possible. After all, it’s the American way.