Friday, July 9, 2010

Note to Cavs Fans: You're Gonna Have to Get Over It!

"Dear Cleveland, All Of Northeast Ohio and Cleveland Cavaliers Supporters Wherever You May Be Tonight;

"As you now know, our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier."

"This was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his "decision" unlike anything ever "witnessed" in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment."

"Clearly, this is bitterly disappointing to all of us."

"The good news is that the ownership team and the rest of the hard-working, loyal, and driven staff over here at your hometown Cavaliers have not betrayed you nor NEVER will betray you."

"There is so much more to tell you about the events of the recent past and our more than exciting future. Over the next several days and weeks, we will be communicating much of that to you."

"You simply don't deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal."

"You have given so much and deserve so much more...

"This shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown "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.""...

Dan Gilbert, Owner
Cleveland Cavaliers

There's a riot in Oakland California. Rush Limbaugh is spouting more racist tripe. The Senate is playing chicken with our country's unemployed.

But I'm on vacation. So, right now, my mind is preoccupied with the comparatively trivial (I'll get to the other later - I promise!).

What's up with Cleveland? Last night, in a display that promises to change the nature of free agency in professional sports, LeBron James decided to join Chris Bosh and Dewayne Wade in signing with the Miami Heat of the NBA. Now I'm not saying 'So what?', but so what?

Here's what I don't understand:

LeBron James played out his contract in Cleveland, which, among other things, means he was free to shop his wares to the highest bidder. Or the team which afforded him the best chance to win a championship - at least in his mind. That team, at least in his mind, wasn't the Cleveland Cavaliers.

I'm not checking to find out how much money James was making in Cleveland. I'm not trying to estimate how much he's going to make in Miami. Bosh, Wade and James all say they are taking less for the opportunity to wear a championship ring (Wade already has one). But here's my issue: if James played out his contract; if he fulfilled all of his obligations of that contract; if he didn't leave publicly trashing his former team or acting like a jerk with his team mates; if everybody who should have made money with the Cavs did make money with the Cavs because of him; if he didn't embarrass the city by getting arrested, acting like a thug or exhibiting any other kind of anti-social behavior - then why is the city going over the top crazy?!

Why are people questioning his character? Is it a question of loyalty? James fulfilled his contractual obligations! The rules - established long before he got to the NBA - allowed him to renegotiate or move on. He didn't exploit the rules, as a matter of fact, he played by all the rules laid out for him. Did he maximize his exposure? Of course! He milked his fame and notoriety for all it was worth; the same way he did in all of the endorsements he made while a Cavalier. Did he create suspension and hype. You bet - didn't Cleveland do the same while he was a part of the team?! So why are fans so angry? Was there something in the contract that none of us know about - like, he was obligated to stay with them until he was 50?!

People question his loyalty. How 'loyal' would Cleveland have been if James had blown out a knee? Or if his play had been such that he was vulnerable to being traded? Would 'King James'' homeboy status have protected him? Suppose there was a new owner? Suppose Byron Scott (the new head coach) isn't able to turn the team around (and I think Scott is a very, very good coach) and decided that he wanted - name the player - because they aren't winning with James. How 'loyal' would the team be?

And what about the fact that there is obviously something player orchestrated in this deal? No major sports league has a rule against players bargaining together for the best deal. It was business savvy to find the loophole that allowed them to market themselves together. The options were limited really. Chicago? Why be judged by Michael Jordan's still huge shadow. Bosh, Wade and James only win three championships and someone would always say "Jordan won six all by himself!". New York, who wants to play under those kleig lights?! If James didn't win the championship without Bosh and Wade, he'd be vilified in the press. If he didn't win with them, they'd all be vilified in the press. There were two choices LeBron, Cleveland where he knew what he'd be getting based on what he'd gotten for seven years and Miami, where he would have Bosh, Wade and Pat Riley. It really wasn't rocket science. And its easy to take less salary for the chance for a championship and what, between the three, could easily translate into $500 million in endorsements!

Did Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert have a chance to negotiate with Bosh, Wade and James. All protestations of taking less money aside, couldn't he have 'money-whipped' the three, making them an offer no rational human being could refuse? A championship in Cleveland is like a championship in Miami - its a championship! If Gilbert didn't do everything possible to sign all three when he realize which way the wind was blowing, is it really James' fault?!

Don't get me wrong. I'm no huge fan of free agency. I liked the idea of players staying together and working for a championship for a period of time. I like the fact that I can name most of the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks from my youth. But I remember another story when I'm too harsh on players going for the best deal:

Vince Lombardi was not only the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, he was also general manager. He 'negotiated' with the players on their contracts. One player, I don't remember his name, came in to renew his contract sans agent (players didn't have agents in those days) and 'demanded' a raise. Lombardi excused himself, turned around and made a phone call, hung up the phone and turned back to the player. "You've just been traded to Philadelphia."

He wasn't kidding!

This represents new waters for free agency. I promise you, it won't be long before football and baseball players follow. And owners will be hard pressed to do anything about it without being sued for collusion (that's already happened in baseball). So as uneasy as this may make us sports 'purists' I'm afraid we're going to have to get used to it. Those of us who tout 'free market' culture in the rest of society, need to know that it has come to the sports world and it doesn't just apply to business (teams) anymore - it applies to athletes, as well. The next collective bargaining agreement in the NFL and the NBA will include exaggerated versions of pleas from the owners saying 'Please stop us from spending as much money as we can possibly spend to get your services individually or collectively'.

And it won't work.

So, Cleveland, what's the big deal? I suggest you get in the game. The balance of power is shifting and Bosh, Wade and, yes, 'King James' have shown you which direction. In the meantime, stop with the sour grapes.
After all, the games still have to be played...

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