The Hypocrisy Exhibited in the LeBron James Circus

The hyper-heat (pun intended) of publicity, acrimony, accusations and recriminations surrounding the free-agency actions of LeBron James is nothing more than an example of the typical attitude of corporations toward their employees. The only difference in the LeBron situation is that the attitudes and actions of management are blatant, open and in hi-def.

LeBron James is being made out to be the villain in all this, but the real scoundrel here is the “system” of management control that LeBron James and many of us are forced to work under.

The system is designed for management to remain in control the employee and nothing upsets or intimidates management more than when an employee uses the system for their own benefit. The real reason that management is so angry with LeBron – as expressed in a vitriolic public relations campaign – is because he used the system that was designed to control him to beat the system. Cleveland Cavalier owner Dan Gilbert has acted like a pre-Civil War Southern slave owner who has had one of his chattels leave the plantation. If LeBron James is “selfish” for exercising his rights under the system, then Gilbert is nothing more than a selfish, ignorant buffoon for acting as he has. Do you think he is concerned for the future of LeBron James or the money he will lose without him?

The Playing Field has Never been Level

From the very start of the game, the system in both business and sports has been designed to allow management to control the actions and future of employees and the athlete. The system is more obvious in sports and may be more subtle in the corporate world, but it is there just the same. The system has been used to take advantage of and exploit both the corporate employee and the athlete.

For example, for over a century, baseball (and every major sport) employed what was called a “reserve clause” in every player contract. The reserve clause had the effect of making the athlete the “property” of the team for which he signed his initial contract. (No wonder Gilbert acts like a jilted slave owner!) The athlete was prohibited from signing and playing with another team – even after the contract expired – unless he was traded or released. As a result, with lack of flexibility and freedom, the players were exploited by the management of the teams. There was no way for the player to protect his future in the event of injury (since management would still control the player at the end of the contract only one-year contracts were offered) and with no competition for the services of the player, management could pay whatever they deemed fit—not what the player might deserve had there been a free-market. (Amazingly, in 1922 the Supreme Court validated the ownership of the players by the team on the basis that sport was an “amusement” and not a business, so teams were exempt from anti-trust or constitutional issues.)

Fortunately, this system was broken 35 years ago, but only by the courageous actions of a few baseball players who were willing to stand up and sacrifice their careers for the benefit of all future players. And, ironically for the benefit of all sports, which flourished after the rules changed.

Let’s look at the system under which LeBron James was forced to work and how he worked the system. At the start of his career James (like all athletes) had no free choice as to where to ply his talents. He was “drafted” by the Cleveland Cavaliers. (One might question the credibility of a “lottery” under which the lowly Cavaliers were able to “win” the rights to draft the already local sports hero LeBron James.)

James signed the (non-negotiated) rookie contract and later even signed an extension so that he spent a total of seven seasons with the Cavaliers. During that time he rose to become the dominant “King” of basketball and Cleveland. (Of course being King of Cleveland is a little like being King of Moldova – there is not much competition). Twice named the league’s Most Valuable Player, James lifted what had been a downtrodden team to title contention every year. Who could ever forget how he personally dismantled the Detroit Pistons in an NBA East Finals. He led a team that, without him, would probably not have even reached the playoffs.

In short, LeBron James did everything and more that would be expected of any employee working for a company. Of course, for his efforts he was well paid. But clearly James also had his own interests and future in mind as he worked under the system.

Like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Alex Rodriguez, Kevin Garnett, and other elite athletes who seek to define their legacy by the number of “majors” they win, LeBron James wanted – more than anything – to win NBA titles. (It is not only the players, but the media and sports fans who define the legacy of an athlete by the number of championships they win, i.e. despite his immense talents and record as a winner, Peyton Manning was never really considered a “great” quarterback until he had won a Super Bowl. Kevin Garnett led the Minnesota Timberwolves to eight-consecutive playoff appearances, but he wanted to play for a winning team. It’s not about money. It’s about personal achievement, something we all seek and treasure. Minnesotans were disappointed when he left, but in his very first year with the Boston Celtics, he finally earned that elusive crown while leading the Celts to their first NBA championship since 1986 and the Celtics’ seventeenth title.

In reality, this is no different than it is in business, where individuals seek to define their legacy by becoming CEO of a large company or by building their own successful company; even if it means leaving their initial or current employer to do so.

In any event, right or wrong, James made the personal decision that the potential for him to win “majors” at Cleveland was not all that high. (Not many top athletes want to move to Cleveland, even if it is to be a teammate of LeBron James. And, can you blame them? Living in Cleveland is like a real-life “Locked Up Abroad” scenario.) James played by the system and when the system allowed him to become a free agent, he used the system to do so. And for that he is vilified as selfish, self-centered, disloyal and a money grabber. (Of course, few noted that he took about $30 million less than he could have earned in Cleveland.)

You have to ask yourself what more does James owe to the owners of the Cavaliers and the sports fans of Cleveland that he has not already given them? Why should James be disparaged as a villain for not being willing to sublimate his personal goals and desires to those of the owner of the Cavaliers and the fans in Cleveland. (How much money has Gilbert made off the efforts of James during the past seven years?) Come on, we are talking basketball here, not a cure for cancer or world peace!

And the Moral of the Story …

Many business executives and corporations operate on the basis that the employee is no more than a “human resource” who should play the rules of the system, dedicate themselves to the success of the company, be loyal, accept what management decides for them and sublimate their personal happiness and future to what management thinks they should be. There are all types of threats – real and implied – used by management to keep the employee in the system. Often there are even efforts to “lock up” an employee within the system.

My advice to those (and I have been there) trapped in such a system is to honestly meet your obligations and requirements, but to ultimately be concerned with your own vision of happiness and success. To do less is to cheat yourself and reduce yourself to nothing more than an employee working under the ultimate “reserve clause.” It takes a certain amount of courage to use the system to beat the system, but the reward for doing so far outweighs the slings and arrows sent your way by those who lack the courage to act and those who simply want to control your future for their benefit.

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