Perhaps in the smoke and mirrors and laser light shows filled with loud music of 2011 sports, LeBron James should be introduced with some Billy Joel music the next time he goes onto the basketball court.
The song “My Life” seems apropos; but if you think LeBron’s post game rift following the Miami Heat’s Game 6 NBA Finals loss was out of line, think again. High salaried athletes of the 21st century in America live in gated communities and don’t have much to do with fans on a daily basis. It is no longer the 1950s — a time when members of the Brooklyn Dodgers lived in the Brooklyn community, members of the New York Giants baseball team lived in Dobbs Ferry, New York and were a part of that community. Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra are no longer selling suits in a Newark clothing store in the off season to supplement their New York Yankees income.
“All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that. So they can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal. But they got to get back to the real world at some point,” James said in an interview following the Game 6 defeat.
At one time LeBron James was a hero but he has become the equivalent of a wrestling heel, a bad guy after leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise and announcing his intentions during a made for cable TV show on ESPN. Forgotten in the criticism of the show which was dubbed “The Decision” was that LeBron James made some money for charity. Athletes are supposed to be role models and the excuse is always because kids look up to sports heroes. LeBron has been clean, no drugs, no jail time yet he is a villain while scores of athletes are arrested on an annual basis for various crimes.
Plaxico Burress and Michael Vick seem to be coming back into sports as conquering heroes after doing jail time. LeBron James doesn’t seem to have humility or has yet to be humbled by the sports media so he is a bad, bad guy now. Athletes are supposed to be humble. Entertainers on the other hand are applauded for being wild people. Celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears are great copy. The sporting media expects athletes to lead the way by example because the kids look up to them.
Babe Ruth was hardly a role model but the Babe was out there signing autographs for the kids back in the 1920s and 1930s. But Babe was also a businessman and in 1930 made more money than President Herbert Hoover. Babe’s response drew chuckles when asked about making more money than the President of the United States.
“I know, but I had a better year than Hoover,” he said.
LeBron James problem seems to be his lack of a quick wit and humor. His statement was innocuous. LeBron James is not refusing to go into military service as a conscientious objector and not following Muhammad Ali’s 1967 lead. He wasn’t on the podium in Mexico City with a black glove raised in the air like John Carlos and Tommie Smith did in 1968 protesting poverty in America.
There was a no political statement here. It was just a pro wrestling type rant.
James is saying publicly what athletes have thought and talked about privately for years. Athletes are not normal people as just everyday performers. LeBron James is in a different stratosphere from the average NBA player. Athletes are coddled, put on pedestals by fans — many of them adults who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s and wear the name of their favorite athlete on their back. They are pursued by autograph hounds and other jock sniffers and there are groupies who chase them.
Athletes are supposed to be happy just playing a child’s game and at one time, great players like Honey Russell (back before the days of the National Basketball League and the Basketball Association of America in the 1930s) played for nothing. Even a great player like George Yardley played for nothing with the Los Angeles Jets of the American Basketball League (an organization that featured a Cleveland franchise owned by George M. Steinbrenner III). Yardley took the opportunity to play because he only participated in home games and select road games where his business would have taken him anyway.
It is a business and LeBron James is merely a businessman who let out a secret that is well known in his community, sports. You play a game and then get on with your life. Jim Bouton in his ground breaking baseball book Ball Four wrote that in 1970.
Sports is nothing more than a business even though fans are asked and give unconditional love for the team. But fans have to put up with an awful lot in exchange for a team. Madison Square Garden displaced the true “fans” decades ago when the building owners tore out the blue seats and replaced them with luxury boxes. The blue collar worker has been evicted from the best seats in that and other buildings.
All of the new buildings that have gone up since the 1986 federal tax code update (which shifted the way municipalities could charge owners for debt payment and put the onus of paying the bills for the facility on the taxpayers) also gave owners an excuse to hike ticket prices. The new places became malls complete with a sporting event, restaurants, shops and some new places included a Ferris Wheel or a swimming pool. In a 2000 interview, long-time basketball executive John Nash, talking before a Nets game at the Meadowlands, wondered if ticket prices for sporting events became too high.
“Cost is obviously a factor and it is directly related to players’ salaries,” said Nash who was the General Manager of the New Jersey Nets at that time. “The players get 53 percent of the gross revenues by virtue of the agreement they made with the NBA. And as their salaries go up, the revenues streams necessarily have to go up.”
“That’s a great question and I think every year teams have to decide for themselves,” Nash said. “What has happened in many cases is that corporations have become our top customers as opposed to the everyday fan who cannot afford either the time commitment of 41 games or the cost.”
Politicians are willing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to build sports stadiums and arenas and in some cases go the extra mile and hand owners money so their cities can be considered big league. This is the culture of sports and Lebron James is part of that culture.
There is a National Football League owners-led work stoppage taking place right now. On July 1, there could very well be an owners-led National Basketball Association work stoppage. Looking down the pike, the possibility of a Major League Baseball work stoppage exists as the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the owners and players expires in December. That National Hockey League owners and players CBA ends in the summer of 2012.
Since the Nash interview, the three NBA franchises have been relocated. Vancouver lost the Grizzlies franchise when Michael Heisley went shopping for a better arena deal in 2001. Heisley took an offer from Memphis. George Shinn relocated his Charlotte Hornets franchise in 2002 to New Orleans also in search of a better arena deal. The Oklahoma City-based owners of the Seattle SuperSonics took the franchise to Oklahoma City in 2008 after Seattle officials refused to build a new arena for the team some 13 years after the city rebuilt the municipally owned arena that housed the NBA team. The owners left despite having two years remaining on the lease between the city and franchise.
New Jersey will be losing the NBA Nets soon as that team will relocate to Brooklyn. Overall, 22 of the NBA’s 30 teams are allegedly losing money.
National Hockey League owners locked out their players in 2004 and shut down the business for an entire year. The NHL figures to approve the relocation of the Atlanta franchise to Winnipeg in a few days. Glendale, Arizona is paying $25 million a year for the privilege of having an NHL franchise in the Phoenix suburb.
Hawaiian officials are questioning why they are paying the NFL $4 million annually to host the league’s annual all-star game, the Pro Bowl.
Businessmen in the Los Angeles area are demanding Los Angeles taxpayers kick money into a stadium for a National Football league team. In Sacramento, police, firefighters, teachers and other municipal employees are getting fired but Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson is determined to spend taxpayers dollars to build an arena for the Maloof brothers Kings NBA franchise and keep the team in town.
Stadiums and arenas are costly projects and sports owners are smart enough to know that they don’t want to build one on their own dime if possible.
Major college athletic departments routinely use their tax exempt status as tools to help raise millions for new facilities complete with premium seating and luxury suites. These new revenues in turn are used to pay fortunes to head coaches and their staffs, even as student-athletes struggle financially and routinely succumb to the temptation to accept gifts and to sell items of value related to their sporting activities.
America is fighting two declared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is involved with NATO in Libya. There seem to be secret wars taking place in Pakistan and Yemen. The economy is still struggling; politicians are more concerned with ideology than settling real problems yet LeBron James’ my life statement is being scrutinized.
LeBron James is nothing more than a highly paid basketball player and entertainer. He’s right. People go back to their lives after a game and he has his own life. He just plays a game, nothing more, nothing less.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on “The Politics of Sports Business.” His book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available at bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle.