Lessons From LeBron or, If You Really Care About Cleveland, Here's How to Save It


So NBA mega-galactic star LeBron James has signed up with the Miami Heat, leaving not just the Cleveland Cavaliers but the "Mistake on the Lake" itself in a lurch. That seems to be the consensus among the cognoscenit and the hoi polloi alike. Last night on Rachel Maddow, for instance, The Nation's sports guy, Dave Zirin, attacked James for going for big dollars and selling out his almost-hometown. Zirin claimed that James' departure would drain the city of $20 million in economic activity just around the Quicken Arena (he and guest host Chris Hayes also fretted over the emergence of a two-tier system in the NBA, in which big stars make tons of money and lesser role players simply earn oodles of it). And the tweets I skimmed last night were running roughly 100 to 0 calling James a bum.

James' ESPN appearance last night may have been an awful exercise in press relations, but he's being attacked for doing exactly what more than half the population of Cleveland has done in the last 60 years: getting the hell out of the place. On top of that, his motivation seems genuine: As he told Larry King earlier this year, his bball legacy depends on earning champeenship rings, not putting up MVP numbers. He wants to be Michael Jordan 2.0, not Charles Barkley 2.0.

Did LeBron vamoose for the money? Likely not, though this analysis makes an interesting case that because of Ohio's and Cleveland's high taxes, he can make more take-home pay in Florida than in Ohio. I doubt that that is his motivating factor but Clevelanders who make far less should read and weep. That same idiotic, complicated tax system is putting your local and regional economy, which has enough to worry about, in a vise.

While there's no certainty that teaming up with the Heat will lead James to the winner's circle, it's definitely the case that he doesn't deserve abuse for taking full advantage of the free agent opportunities available to him. As labor in a stridently enforced cartel, he puts the asses in the seats and he should extract whatever he can during a career that can end at any minute. We forget that it wasn't so long ago that stars of James' stature were totally screwed by an oppressive management system (Matt Welch doesn't, in this great essay about how Joe Willie Namath, Richie Dick Allen, and Oscar Big O Robertson ushered in an age of "Locker-Room Liberty").

More important, Cleveland's destiny as a dying industrial city is in no way linked to James' staying or going. As economist Dennis Coates has pointed out, having a major professional franchise in an area actually reduces per capita income by about $40 (believe). Cities don't rise and fall on the backs of their sports teams and sports figures (trust me, I lived in Buffalo three of its four Super Bowl years and nothing would have changed had Scud Norwood split the uprights against the Giants).

If Cleveland and its rooters in the press (who never seem to actually go there) want to take some lessons from James' departure, they should think about what they can do for the 99.9 percent of its residents who don't play in the NBA or own professional sports teams.

Which is another way of saying that LeBron James can't save Cleveland (he never could), but there are definite steps that city can take to improve life for its citizens. They may not be as sexy as building generally empty stadiums (how often do the Browns play again?) or subsidzing failing museums (Rock And Roll!) or betting the farm on new convention centers (three white elephants is better than two!). But they have the advantage of actually working to nudge quality of life upwards.

Check out Reason Saves Cleveland with Drew Carey: How to Fix The Mistake on the Lake and Other Once-Great American Cities. Click here to go to a page with all six episodes and background materials. Click below to watch the 50 minute doc.