12. The Players Own the Game
Columnist, New York magazine
When LeBron James was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in June 2003, he was wearing a blindingly white suit and an awkward, bewildered smile. Talking to ESPN’s Michele Tafoya, seconds after being drafted, LeBron said, “[This] shows the hard work has finally paid off for me.” He was 18 years old.
Seven years later, LeBron was back on ESPN, announcing to the sports world that he would be leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers and taking his “talents to South Beach.” In those seven years, LeBron had won two MVP awards, four first-team all-NBA awards, and, famously, zero titles. But perhaps the most important thing he won was his freedom. LeBron joined the Miami Heat not because the move would bring him the most money, or the best chance at a championship. He went to Miami because his friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would be there. He went because it’s sunny, and the women are very attractive. He went because he wanted to.
LeBron has been derided less for the choice he made than for the way he announced it—on television, surrounded by children, hawking a flavored water. But what really scared the world of sports was that LeBron’s hubris was justified. No one cared about the Cavs or the Heat; they were interested in LeBron.
The world of sports is able to exist because it treats its labor unlike any other business on Earth. If you are an accountant, a librarian, a car salesman, whatever, when you receive an offer from anyone in the world for your services, you are able to take it. You can work anywhere, for whatever wage you’re able to grab. If this happened in sports, the result would be chaos: every team’s roster would turn over every year, and all the talent would be concentrated on two or three teams (even more than it already is). So much of a sport’s appeal is in the illusion of team history and continuity; unbridled free agency would destroy that illusion. For all the talk of supposed “rich and spoiled athletes,” few other industries can get away with labor practices that essentially amount to high-paid indentured servitude for the players.
LeBron’s example marks an evolution in athlete culture, one in which players realize their power. You’re seeing this everywhere now, from the NFL and NBA labor battles to the better understanding of concussions and athlete safety. For their part, fans are better educated than they’ve ever been (thanks to the Web) and are starting to side with the players in kerfuffles like labor disputes. Fans used to feel that owners somehow “earned” their money, while pro athletes were just fortunate winners of a genetic lottery. This is the exact opposite of the truth. (Holding on to your job is about 95 million times harder for a player than for an owner.) Sure, guys like LeBron and Carmelo Anthony are seen as mercenaries, but from a business standpoint, we understand their leverage ... and even appreciate and envy it.
Owners might not realize where this is headed, but as the players make more money than ever in outside endorsement deals, their dependence on the leagues is waning. The athletes control these businesses—it’s the players’ jerseys we’re wearing, not the owners’.
Then again, that could change. LeBron just bought a stake in Liverpool FC, one of the more popular English soccer teams. In this way, he can, at last, be like Mike: in 2010, Michael Jordan bought a majority share of the Charlotte Bobcats. The players are becoming the owners now. This is just the beginning.