In the summer of 2010, LeBron James announced to the world that he would be joining fellow National Basketball Association stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to play with the Miami Heat. Overnight, James went from being Cleveland’s favorite son, beloved by the media and fans alike, to being one of the most despised players in the league. No one could fathom that he would leave the Cavaliers, let alone announce his decision live on national television, but if we place the events that transpired that summer in a broader, historical context, we see that “The Decision,” as it is has popularly come to be known, was not an act of betrayal.
LeBron James had every right to join the Miami Heat. He honored his contract with the Cavaliers and carried an otherwise mediocre team to the NBA Finals. When the time came to sign a new contract, he did what any other person in his position would have done and used the free agent market to choose a team he felt he would be most successful with. His decision was an expression of freedom and self-determination, qualities that hold high places in our society. Instead of condemning LeBron James, he should be recognized for asserting control over his own destiny and for bringing greater balance to the player-owner relationship in the NBA.
Never before has the sports world seen a professional athlete assert control over his own destiny as visibly as LeBron did. Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert certainly did not see it coming, nor was he prepared to deal with someone other than the “owners” taking ownership in the league. In a strongly worded letter posted on the Cavaliers website shortly after James’ announcement, Gilbert said, “You simply don't deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal… This shocking act of disloyalty from our homegrown ‘chosen one’ sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And ‘who’ we would want them to grow-up to become.”
Does asserting control over one’s own destiny really set a bad example for our children? For most of the NBA’s history, players were not allowed to sign with any team following the end of their contracts. Unrestricted free agency has only existed in the NBA since 1996. Before then, NBA owners held exclusive rights to players. If LeBron wanted to play for a different team back in the early 1990s, he would have needed to demand a trade and Dan Gilbert could have just as easily refused to do so. All the power was in the hands of the owners.
Gilbert’s overreaction to LeBron’s decision reminds us that not too long ago, NBA players were expected to be subordinate to the owners. Today, James stands on the shoulders of those professional athletes, such as MLB All-Star Curt Flood, who fought for free agency and greater player autonomy in the past, laying the platform for athletes like James to assert control over their own destinies.
Although black people continue to be underrepresented in positions of power such as the government, non-profit, and corporate sectors due to the lingering effects of institutional racism in this country, professional basketball has emerged as a lucrative profession in which blacks are well represented. However, the owners, coaches, agents, and members of the media continue to be overwhelmingly devoid of color. The league did not have its first black majority owner until Black Entertainment Television founder Robert L. Johnson purchased the Charlotte Bobcats in 2003. Michael Jordan has since purchased that team and remains the only black majority owner in the NBA.
Given this racial dynamic, the fact that LeBron James is black is significant. If LeBron James were not black, it is unlikely that he would have received the same type of backlash for leaving Cleveland. As Jonathen Weiler of the Huffington Post writes, “Superstar black athletes face acute pressure to be perfectly humble…unfailingly cooperative with the media… they must express, at all times, their deep gratitude for the opportunity they’ve been given, even as their owners have license to act as if their own wealth is a divine right.” After The Decision, many members of the media viewed The Decision as an entirely selfish act. There was little discussion about LeBron’s own best interest, because emphasizing the best interest of the black athlete has never been the norm. The league continues to be one that privileges the owner at the expense of the player.
In a society that values individualism and self-fulfillment, LeBron had the courage to assert control over his own career regardless of what anyone else—owners, coaches, agents, media—would have otherwise preferred. In an NBA that has historically restricted the freedoms of players, his decision to take his talents to South Beach represents a bold assertion over one’s own destiny, and that is something that should always be respected.
Dennis O. Ojogho ’16 is a Crimson editorial writer in Winthrop House.
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