If Curt Flood, who passed away in 1997, watched this year’s version of NBA free agency from above, he has to be smiling.
For decades, professional athletes longed for the right to choose where they played. It wasn’t until Flood was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969 that the door to free agency began to open. Rather than report to the Phillies, Flood sued Major League Baseball, challenging baseball’s reserve clause. Not surprisingly, given their previous decisions on the matter, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Flood in 1972. But three years later, free agency for MLB players became a reality. Other professional sports soon followed suit.
Free agency came to the NBA in 1988, but it’s safe to say that no free agent period was quite like the one we just experienced. The center of attention of course was LeBron James, who along with his handlers orchestrated what can only be described as a multi-ring circus. The tedious, over-hyped LeBronathon was nothing if not an exercise in excess.
After LeBron announced his decision to abandon his home state of Cleveland for “South Beach,” as he referred to his new team, the Miami Heat, he was called heartless, callous, spoiled, narcissistic, cowardly, selfish, entitled, shameful, and a traitor. Of course, James is all of those things, but not because of his decision or the process that led up to it. James is merely a product of his environment, what scientists refer to as “nurture.” Like many modern day athletes, he has been pampered and coddled by friends, relatives, hangers on, bag men, coaches and the media ever since he was in grade school.
Many of the people who are criticizing James now are the same ones who helped create the man-child known as “The King.” It’s disingenuous for those enablers, including Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, to turn on LeBron now. Gilbert joined the chorus of criticism against LeBron by issuing a public letter to Cleveland fans ripping the former face of his franchise. While Gilbert’s disappointment and frustration in losing his meal ticket are understandable, his letter was unprofessional and counterproductive.
Unlike LeBron, who is a 25-year-old athlete with a high school education, Gilbert is a 46-year-old attorney and successful businessman. LeBron’s actions should have been expected, if not universally appreciated, but Gilbert’s tirade – including his accusation that James “quit” during this year’s Eastern Conference playoffs against the Celtics – was inexcusable and perhaps defamatory. He embarrassed himself, his team and the league. If NBA Commissioner David Stern has any real power, or wants his league to have any credibility, he will suspend Gilbert, or at least fine him, for his comments.
That isn’t the only issue this year’s bizarre free agent period created for the NBA. The league and its players are currently negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement to take effect after next season. During the negotiations, Stern has been crying poverty on behalf of the owners, claiming the league lost upwards of $400 million last year. That statement is difficult to reconcile with the $100-million contracts teams conferred on this year’s free agent class as if they were passing out tootsie rolls at a trade show. The NBPA has no doubt taken note of the inconsistency between words and deeds.
Another issue the league is likely to address is the obvious collusion engaged in by LeBron and his new teammates, Dewayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Under Article XIV of the CBA, owners are prohibited from colluding against the players. But the CBA contains no quid-pro-quo from the players. Free agency isn’t going to disappear, but it’s unlikely that owners will be content to sit idly by in the future and allow players to collectively decide where they are going to play and for how much.
The LeBronathon gave the NBA off-season exposure, but the league came off looking more like the World Wrestling Entertainment than a credible sports league. Billionaire owners can’t be pleased with the current free agent process which saw six of them groveling at the feet of an athlete who, in the end, made five of them feel foolish.
Surely Curt Flood is looking on with a sense of satisfaction – and perhaps a touch of jealousy – at what he has wrought.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University, teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming, and is a contributing author to the Business of Sports Network. Jordan can be reached at email@example.com.
... read the rest of the story by Subscribing now.