I’m rooting for the Miami Heat against the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals and not just because my girlfriend is a die-hard San Antonio Spurs fan. As an old-time Knicks fans from the good old days of the nineties Knicks-Heat slugfests, it’s been tough for me to reconcile myself to the pro-Heat posture, but it’s the correct one. The entire construct in the press that’s gotten LeBron James labeled History’s Greatest Monster for his defection to Miami is fundamentally wrongheaded and anti-labor.
What we’re looking at, essentially, is the case of King James Versus The Cartel. The NBA’s maximum salary rules prevent stellar players like James from earning a market wage. Consequently, LeBron was underpaid in Cleveland, is underpaid in Miami, and would have been underpaid in New York or Chicago. What’s more, the NBA’s draft rules prevent stellar prospects like the 2003 version of LeBron James from choosing which firm they want to work for. If the Lakers wanted to pay him to play basketball and he wanted to play basketball in Los Angeles in exchange for money, he wasn’t allowed. Essentially the only market power a first-rate NBA player has is that (assuming he’s off his rookie deal) he’s allowed to choose which firm will underpay him. The construction of James (and to a lesser extent Chris Bosh) as a traitor to the people of Cleveland (and to a lesser extent Toronto) seeks to normatively stigmatize the exercise of even that freedom. A player should work, indefinitely, at a sub-market wage for whatever team happens to draft him? Why?
Was “The Decision” kind of tasteless? Yes. But we all have our lapses and LeBron’s lapse raised money for charity. Did the biggest social faux pas of your life raise money for charity? I’m guessing it didn’t. Nobody needs to cry for rich NBA stars, but the idea that the even-richer people who own the teams have a moral right to their labor is nuts.