LeBron James: Metaphor for a Generation of Narcissists?

(This is a little out of my arena – in a couple of ways.  This is a blog primarily dealing with business books and business ideas.  I do think this is related to the business health of communities in our country.  So…  here I go).

News item“Much has been made of the economic impact LeBron’s leaving would have on economically depressed Northeast Ohio, where the manufacturing jobs have left, probably for good, and where people are struggling through 10.9% unemployment in LeBron’s own hometown of Akron.”


Let me start by stating the obvious.  I am a casual sports fan.  I could not tell you a single thing about the finer points of soccer.  I can barely name a single starting player on the Texas Rangers, my “home team.”  (Although, I can name the starting line-up of the 1961 Yankees).    I still think of Dandy Don and Roger Staubach as my favorite Cowboys quarterbacks, though I do admit to respect for that late-comer, Troy Aikman.

And I have no idea if LeBron James should have stayed in Cleveland, or made the move to Miami.

And, I readily acknowledge that LeBron James can do whatever he wants.  He is allowed to move to Miami.  Since Curt Flood, we all know that the athletes themselves deserve to profit aplenty from their skills.  From Wikipedia:
He believed that Major League Baseball’s decades-old reserve clause was unfair in that it kept players beholden for life to the team with whom they originally signed, even when they had satisfied the terms and conditions of those contracts.

his uniform no longer

But…but…  what LeBron James decided to do was a metaphor for this age.  The rich get richer, while the less rich are left floundering.  Miami is a happening city.  Cleveland is in a state fighting for its economic survival.  LeBron James will add to the cachet of Miami, but he was the very heart of Cleveland.  The people needed him.  The city needed him.  The owner of the Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert, in a fit of anger that he made quite public, stated it this way (full text of his letter here):

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.
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.

(By the way, Jesse Jackson says that Gilbert is treating LeBron James like a “runaway slave…  This is an owner employee relationship — between business partners — and LeBron honored his contract”).

Here are my thoughts.  I have no doubt that LeBron James had every right to make the move.  I acknowledge the right for every person to take the best deal available, or, to simply decide what job to take and what city to live in – or what friends to associate/work with.

But shouldn’t there be other considerations also?  Communities are starving for hope, and this is a time for us to work together, for and with each other, more than for “self.”  Gilbert’s use of the word “narcissistic” is telling.  In an era when the gap between CEO pay and the average worker in the very companies of these CEOs is at an all time high, and getting greater by the year; in a time when a CEO is rewarded for cutting job after job to increase profits; in an era when cities and suburbs are facing great difficulty –imagine what it would have meant for LeBron James to say something like this:  “Cleveland has been a wonderful place to live, and I want to do my part to be part of this community, helping it in every way that I can.”

But he did not say that.  No, he did not have to.  But, wouldn’t it have sent a great and powerful message if he had?

There are small towns and neighborhoods in big cities across America that are becoming ghost towns as people move away and never come back.  As people leave, everything declines – property values, sales taxes (which pay for fire, police, streets)…  Cities need their best and their brightest to stay home and keep their “home” strong and secure.

And Cleveland needed LeBron.  The people of Cleveland needed LeBron.  But now he is gone.

There was one clip of a distraught man (my guess, in his early 30’s), who said, with tears, that “this was the worst thing that ever happened” to him.  You can make fun, if you want.  Maybe he was a little too hero fixated.  But maybe he had friends who lost jobs, maybe his job is in jeopardy, maybe LeBron gave him hope that Cleveland could have a better tomorrow.  Maybe LeBron’s decision was symbolic of all that Cleveland has lost over the years.

LeBron James made a selfish decision.  That’s ok – that’s his right.  But we are a nation where a few selfless decisions might be good for us all right now.


For further reading:
What Cleveland Lost When It Lost LeBron by Chris Good of The Atlantic.

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