The Summer of 2014 seems to be on its way to becoming a sequel of the Summer of 2010, also known as the summer of “The Decision.” Right now, LeBron James is a NBA Free Agent, after opting out of his contract with the Miami Heat. And, in a repeat of 2010, James is the big fish on the NBA Free Agent market. He has no shortage of suitors, ranging from the Heat to this former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. With everyone in the NBA waiting for LeBron and other free agents (most notably, fellow 2003 draftee Carmelo Anthony) to make decisions and sign deals, the void of any concrete news has lead to rampant speculation. And that speculation only leads to different fan bases getting their hopes up, only to get them dashed when LeBron and/or Carmelo chooses to play for another team.
When LeBron produced his now infamous “Decision” in 2010 and put the phrase “taking my talents to South Beach” into the American sporting lexicon, the backlash was swift and vicious. Cavalier fans burned his jersey in bonfires all around the Cleveland area. Cleveland majority owner Dan Gilbert penned a letter that took the tone of a jilted lover rather than an employer whose star employee left to work for a competitor. The phrase “cowardly betrayal” stands out in the letter because it implies something that a lot of sports fans seem to struggle to deal with: ownership of athletes.
From the time a recruit shows up on a recruiting list, fans begin to take ownership of the kids. It only intensifies as the top recruits narrow their choices down to schools. In today’s climate, recruits get tweeted at by fans: “Come to my school!” “You’d look great playing at school X!” and other much more unsavory things. But when the recruit chooses a school that’s not theirs, the fans become even more vicious. There’s the harassment/bullying on social media. And in some cases, it gets much worse.
Once a kid enrolls at a school, that still doesn’t save them from the faux ownership mentality of fans. If a kid makes a bad play, he’s, once again, harassed on social media and on rare occasions, in real life. Why? Because the kid plays for MY team and for MY school. At some point, athletes stop belonging to their family name on the back of the jerseys and are only relatable by the name on the front. They play for our teams, so they belong to us and we can do or say whatever we want to them.
Once a young man turns professional and is getting paid to entertain us, the ownership mentality gets even worse. We want to believe that these athletes care as much about the game as we do. But it’s not about the game. We want them to participate in our rivalries. We want them to hate the teams we hate as much, or more, than we do. We want them to leave money on the bargaining table as if it were something anyone else would do. And when it comes down to it, we don’t want them to leave. Well, we don’t want them to leave on their own terms, but if their contract is bloated enough, we seem to have to problem with our GM shipping them off to get under the cap.
What we must keep in mind is that every one of these athletes first allegiance should be to themselves and their families. They don’t owe us fans anything if they do or do not play at our favorite colleges. They owe us nothing if they decide to leave early to play professionally. And once they’re pros, they don’t owe us or team management anything once their contract is up. The timeframe for a professional athlete to make money and win championships is a short one. A high school kid has to make the right choices based on their situation, not on anything fans see as being so simple. The simple thing is, it’s up to each of us to choose our own life path. And that includes athletes.