LeBron James will not become the next president of the embattled National Basketball Players Association, USA Today reported Monday, bringing to an end The King’s brief flirtation with a new type of throne. James had been considering a run to replace Derek Fisher, whose tenure as president ended this year, as the union seeks to right itself from the turmoil that gripped it this season when the players removed executive director Billy Hunter from office for, among other reasons, allegedly using union funds improperly.
A source close to James told USA Today that he couldn’t devote the necessary time to the office given his assorted basketball and non-basketball commitments and that he didn’t want to take the job if he couldn’t give it his full attention. James would have been the most high-profile player to serve as NBPA president since Patrick Ewing did so in 1995.
Would James have made a good union president? It’s hard to know for sure. He would have given the union a powerful and influential voice at a time when it is trying to replace Hunter and move past internal problems so that it can refocus itself on labor and salary issues in basketball. The union staved off some of owners’ worst demands during the 2011 lockout, including a hard salary cap, but it also saw players’ share of the revenue pie reduced even further. Leading the union is, of course, a major responsibility that requires understanding the league’s labor landscape, but LeBron seems like he reached that point in recent years, sitting in on bargaining sessions during the lockout and expressing frustration with its direction both under Hunter and since.
Another question is whether a superstar could lead a union made up mostly of players who aren’t superstars. As Yahoo’s Eric Freeman wrote Monday, there’s a reason why presidents tend to be seasoned veterans and role players like Fisher: “[T]hey have developed a sense of the NBA landscape and the players’ position within it…and, most crucially, they’re role players who represent the vast majority of union members.” That’s certainly true and definitely important, since veterans and role players took the biggest hit in the 2011 labor fight. But LeBron also seems to have at least some knowledge of that fact as well. He said last year that the current NBA structure leaves him tremendously underpaid, and that comment was largely attributed to greed and a sense of selfishness. But its subtext may have also shown an understanding that while underpaying LeBron benefited owners first, it also carried a substantial benefit for his fellow players. James was also one of the first NBA players to voice his displeasure with the current bargaining agreement when the Sacramento Kings sale was approved this year.
It’s clear now that the players from James to the last guy on an NBA roster didn’t get a fair shake in the 2011 labor negotiations. James may be a superstar with fewer monetary worries than other players, but he still has a stake in the union’s success. And even if he wasn’t coming from same perspective as a role player, the president doesn’t serve unilaterally, so veterans and role players would have still had a voice in crafting a unified message and could have benefited from having such a prominent player broadcasting it to owners and the public.
If LeBron couldn’t make the time commitment, though, it’s probably best for the union that he’s dipping his toe in the leadership water without fulling taking the plunge now. James still wants to take a more active role in the NBPA, according to reports, and that may set him up to do his best work for the union not now but in the future when a voice like his is even more important. That will give James the experience he needs, both in understanding the landscape and in learning to listen to his fellow players, for a date in the future when he may consider leading the union again, perhaps as soon as 2017, when both players and owners can opt out of the current agreement and another labor fight could begin anew. At that point, a LeBron James who fully understands what the NBPA needs may even more valuable to the union than he could ever be now.