Business for Me, but not for Thee … LeBron

“It’s not about him leaving. It’s the disrespect. It’s time for people to hold these athletes accountable for their actions. Is this the way you raise your children?” – Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert

For the few folks out there who just don’t keep up with sports, LeBron James, possibly the most physically talented basketball player ever (though it’s hard to beat Wilt Chamberlain) left the Cleveland Cavaliers in free agency, choosing the Miami Heat instead. In Miami, there was jubilation. In Chicago and New York (others competitors in the LeBron-stakes), there was disappointment. In Cleveland, there was vitriol and perhaps a bit of nonsense.

Now, I don’t want to come down too hard on the tantrum that Dan Gilbert threw. He had just lost the best player in the game, an unthinkable transgression for any NBA owner. In such a situation, even multi-millionaires can throw tantrums.

Still, the statement is just packed with hypocrisy and condescension. We can’t just let such a golden opportunity pass.

First, let me point out that what LeBron James did, from a business and contractual standpoint, was absolutely, 100% above-board. He had a contract which he fulfilled. He met the conditions of free agency. He then signed with a team of his choosing. Nobody was wronged from a legal or moral perspective on the business front.

When Gilbert exclaims that people need to “hold these athletes accountable for their actions” and that nobody would raise their children this way, the metaphorical relations are simple to unpack. On the one hand he could view athletes in the parent-child role, with the team management being parents responsible for raising the athletes from their youth and therefore entitled to respect, honor, and obedience later in life. Then again, he could be relying more heavily on the owner-property relationship. That he as owner should not be disrespected by his property in such a way. Either of these fit with his statements – and both are utter nonsense. NBA players are adults and business men. They are free to conduct business within the rules and legal constructs of the league.

The statement really bespeaks a great deal of deflection. LeBron James is from Ohio. Cleveland is the natural fit for him. That Dan Gilbert couldn’t put together a coaching staff and supporting cast to keep LeBron at home speaks volumes about his ineptitude as an owner. Imagine if the Bulls had let Jordan slip away, or maybe if the Lakers just weren’t paying attention and let Kobe Bryant wander off in free agency. You can bet a GM would’ve been fired and the fans would’ve been pissed. In such a situation, the best bet an owner has is to blame the player. The fans will be angry – there’s no way around it. Dan Gilbert would like to convince them to be angry at LeBron and not the true person at fault … Dan Gilbert.

Then there is the issue of business. It’s perfectly OK for Dan Gilbert to do business for the sake of business – but LeBron James is supposed to be emotionally involved and stay committed to the Cavaliers even if it’s a bad business decision. This bit is cropping up quite often these days, and it seems always to be the rich and powerful who claim that the “underlings” or “lesser classes” shouldn’t do what’s best for themselves.

In an odd twist, Dan Gilbert’s other industry is heavily involved in one such matter. Dan Gilbert was the chairman and founder of Quicken Loans and also owns Countrywide Financial (the two are apparently linked somehow). During the financial crisis, lending outfits such as these raised quite a stink (and still are) about the moral obligations to pay one’s mortgage back, even if the borrower is “underwater” (owing more than the house is worth).

Now, I obviously prefer paying back a loan (see Psalm 37:21). But the terms of mortgage loans are pretty clear: if you cannot or will not pay, the secured asset (house) goes back to the mortgage company. Of course, lenders don’t want this. They don’t want to take possession of assets less valuable than the loans they have made. So, they will do whatever they can to convince people to stay and slog it out a bit longer – even if it includes harassment about “obligations” and “moral responsibilities”. (Sounds a lot like “disrespect” and “accountable for their actions” doesn’t it?)

Interestingly though, the lenders never behave that way themselves. There are numerous instances of lending firms with property holdings intentionally defaulting on their loans because it was a good business decision. Business for me, but not for thee.

Dan Gilbert wanted the same thing from LeBron. He made no committment to go get Chris Bosh or Dirk Nowitzki to come help LeBron. No, LeBron should just stay in an awful team situation for moral reasons. Really?

(On a side note, I don’t think Miami was a good choice. He had a better team available in Chicago, who already had Derrick Rose and just acquired Carlos Boozer. I don’t think LeBron and Dwayne Wade on the same floor is a good fit. But that’s just a tactical issue, not a moral one.)

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