The Lucrative LeBron Show, First Of Its Kind

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Guest

Tom Goldman, sports correspondent, NPR

Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James will finally announce his future NBA plans in an ESPN special. Team owners and basketball fans have been on the edges of their seats, trying to guess where he will play next season. James' decision marks a turning point for the business of free agency.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Later today, the great basketball player, LeBron James, announces whether he'll sign to play for his hometown team in Cleveland or play for Miami, Chicago, New York or maybe even New Jersey. After years of steadily-bubbling speculation, the buzz erupted into a national frenzy over the past few weeks, and it culminates tonight in a one-hour special on ESPN.

In a way, this is Curt Flood's story too. Forty years ago, Flood challenged the system that tied professional ballplayers to the team that first signed them for life. After many years as a centerfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, Flood learned that he'd been traded to the Philadelphia Phillies and refused to go.

After 12 years in the Major Leagues, he wrote to then Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. The analogy to slavery was lost on no one. Curt Flood sat out the next season, which cost him $100,000. Tonight, LeBron James selects which team gets to pay him something well north of $100 million.

We'd like to hear from the athletes in our audience today about how the relationship between owners and players has changed since 1969, whether that's an entirely good thing. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR correspondent Tom Goldman joins us now from his home in Portland. And, Tom, it's always great to have you on the program.

TOM GOLDMAN: Thanks, Neal. Portland, which I don't believe is in the running for LeBron James, but we won't know until 9:00 Eastern tonight.

CONAN: Won't know until 9:00 Eastern time tonight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I guess it's important in this conversation to remember that Curt Flood went to federal court and lost that case.

GOLDMAN: He did. He went all the way to the Supreme Court and lost. And - but, you know, that really kind of started a movement. And in 1974, 1975, an arbitrator ruled in favor of players, which really lead - paved the way for free agency, not just in baseball. Baseball was the first. But then also in 1970, the great Oscar Robertson, who was out of the game then but head of the Players Association, filed a lawsuit, and that kind of - that was resolved six years later in 1976, which paved the way for NBA players to become free agents, at least restricted free agents at that time, which meant that their - the team they were going to leave had to opportunity to match the new team's offer. In the late '80s, then you had unrestricted free agency coming into play, which is what we're seeing now.

But you're absolutely right. I mean, this 40-year span, from Curt Flood and being ostracized like a lot of people, and here we are 40 years later with the decision live on ESPN TV. Don't know what the early pioneers would think of this. Of course, it's - I don't think anyone would argue with the importance of players having the freedom of movement. But I think a lot of people were saying, this is a little excessive tonight.

CONAN: It might be a little excessive tonight. But the turnabout could not be more complete from when a player literally - for most of the history of the game of baseball, again, our longest running professional sport, a lot of the time you'd be mailed a contract in the wintertime and you could sign it and come into play, or you could sit.

GOLDMAN: Right. And the owners rule. You know, the owners had their way with contracts. It was in the owners' favor how things were resolved. The players had very little, if any, rights. And now, you have the players calling the shots, you know? You have the players not only calling the shots but if it's to be believed that LeBron James, Dwayne Wade of the Miami Heat and Chris Bosh of now the Miami Heat, apparently...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

GOLDMAN: ...you know, we're having these so-called summits in deciding, you know, if they all wanted to play together, which now is today - actually today is the buzz that this may happen. The three of them may be in Miami together.

But you have these guys kind of deciding, okay, let's all play here and we will shift the power of an entire league, or at least that's their intention, to shift the power by all signing with the same team. So it's just very dramatic where we've come over these decades.

CONAN: If owners did that, if they said, look, here's a really good idea. It would be better for the league and our economics and everybody's bottom line if we put LeBron James in New York or Portland or wherever just to build up the audience there. Good to have a good team in New York, in the biggest market in the country, and we'll move this player there. And that would be called collusion. It would be illegal.

GOLDMAN: Exactly. It would. And it has been in the past, not that they've done exactly that. But in Major League Baseball, certainly, the owners were found guilty of collusion. So, yeah, right now, I would say that players rule.

CONAN: And so you have this idea that tonight - and correct me if my understanding of this is wrong - LeBron James decided that he was going to make the announcement, contacted ESPN, which, of course, is owned by ABC or the other way around. I'm not actually exactly sure which.

GOLDMAN: Right.

CONAN: And said, why don't we do this on ESPN and I'll name the person who does the interview...

GOLDMAN: Right.

CONAN: And I'll, in fact, name the sponsors, or at least most of them, and I will name the place where all of the profits go.

GOLDMAN: Yeah. Yeah. Well, the - as we said, this is power, this is control. It makes people, especially in the media, squirm a little bit. Even some ESPN columnists have been writing about this. You know, this is the story that has been driven by ESPN for the last seven days, well, really over the last couple of years. But most intensively, over the last seven days driven by ESPN, ESPN insiders, supposedly Chris Broussard, for anyone who watches ESPN is now the most famous guy on the network. He's the ultimate insider, getting all kinds of information from sources and, you know, he's on by the hour. I watched, kind of, you know how they - how you see presidents, over their span, age?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

GOLDMAN: You know, you see Chris Broussard aging over the last week...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDMAN: ...at least he's losing his voice. He's getting very hoarse. And, you know, so it's the network that is driving the story which is now going to create this moment when we will have the only real news, because up to now, it's been a lot of speculation and rumor.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

GOLDMAN: A lot of people are kind of uncomfortable with that. But the one sure thing is, it is driving so much attention. Panting NBA fans are going to tune in in droves. Everyone wants to see what he says.

CONAN: Well, watching Chris Broussard this past week has been like watching Mel Kiper's hair slightly disarray as it - the draft day appraoches.

GOLDMAN: Oh, that could never happen, though, Neal, no.

CONAN: And it's interesting, the balance of power in the league could shift. These are important - probably, the economic importance of this has been slightly exaggerated.

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

CONAN: But it's important to a place like Cleveland or Miami if they have a winning basketball team.

GOLDMAN: Oh, certainly, and even more so than - I mean, Miami has got, you know, beautiful city and the ocean, I mean, not - no knock on Cleveland, but Cleveland is hungry for a championship team and hasn't been since 1964, when the Browns won the NFL championship - those were pre-Super Bowl days. And, you know, LeBron James has been, for the last seven years, the guy who's going to finally deliver. He hasn't in seven years. Cleveland fans obviously hope that he does. But, yeah, I mean, a championship means a lot to a city and, you know, that's been studied over the years. Whether it just gives everyone more spring in their step or it helps economically, it helps. And Clevelanders are nervous but hopeful that their native son will come through for them tonight.

CONAN: We want to hear from athletes in our audience about the history of the past 40 years and the new rights that were won by players and mostly labor negotiations, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Jamil(ph) is on the line calling us from Sacramento.

JAMIL (Caller): How are you doing? Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Sure.

JAMIL: I appropriately think that it's good that the players have more autonomy in choosing where they're going. I believe, you know, we look at the situation with Shaq and Kobe, personality conflict. I mean, players need to feel like they want to be in that city and they want to play with those teammates, I think. It's there for everybody that it's protected and that they have the ability to go and play wherever and not be restricted by saying, oh, if I leave, I'll lose $30 million, $20 million. But if I go, I can actually go and play because I want to win a championship with this team. That's about winning and not about, you know, the contract that I can lose $30 million. And that's something that, you know, has restricted good players from forming good teams and playing the city that they want to play in.

CONAN: Do you speak from personal experience, Jamil?

JAMIL: I do. I play professional sport. I played for the NBA Development League, which is the minor league team for Chicago Bulls as well as the Washington Wizards. And, you know, part of - you know, when you're pretty much, you know, drafted to a team, you really have no rights, no say. You pretty much follow their rules. And, you know, you're right to fit wherever the team feel fit.

And I think, you know, the one time that you do have a choice to say, hey, I want to go to this team or I want to leave here, during a free agency, that shouldn't be this restrictive free agency or this rules that cap player's income. At some point in time, there has to be a choice and the player should earn that and deserve that during free agency.

CONAN: All right. And do you think that players - and this has been brought up a lot in the LeBron James' case. He grew up in Akron, Ohio. The only team he's played for, I think, for seven years professionally...

JAMIL: Right.

CONAN: ...has been in Cleveland. He is now a free agent. He's played out his contract. Does he owe the people of Cleveland and the team there anything?

JAMIL: He has no - I mean, I think, you know, you played seven years there. You tried the best for the team, tried your best, but obviously it wasn't a good fit. I think if you look at Kevin Garnett, he wants to look at his legacy. I mean, LeBron needs a championship, Kevin Garnett needs a championship. And the only way they were able to do that is by leaving.

I think, you know, there's been several players who played their league and had gone for the money. And everybody complains about the players getting all this money. But at the same time, the whole point is they get to play for what they love and not the championship and to win. And if LeBron is handicapped in decision by the amount of money he can make, he'll never be the legacy player like a Michael Jordan that he deserves to be.

CONAN: All right, Jamil, thanks very much. Good luck with your career.

JAMIL: Thank you. Appreciate it.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

GOLDMAN: Neal, I would just interject here that, you know, yes, certainly, a lot of people agree with what Jamil is saying, on players have absolutely the right to go where they want and they've earned that over the past number of decades. You know, but what does come with that is a responsibility and a ton of more pressure as we're seeing with LeBron James and that goes to the question you asked Jamil, you know, does he owe Cleveland anything? It's going to be his decision. And so if he decides against Cleveland, Clevelanders will know who to - whom to blame. And, you know, big decision. And he's - I'm sure trying to keep his head clear.

CONAN: He mentioned Garnett in that conversation. He, of course, played with the Minnesota Timberwolves, I believe...

GOLDMAN: Right.

CONAN: ...played out his contract and then got a free agent contract to play with the Boston Celtics where he went on to win a title with the Celtics. So that's what he was able to do because of free agency.

GOLDMAN: And joined a similar situation as to what people are speculating about Miami. You know, that became known as the Big Three in Boston, with Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen joining the team and winning a championship right away. But, you know, it doesn't always happen that when you combine super talent that that will guarantee a championship. And that's an important part of the conversation.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR correspondent Tom Goldman about the, I think, it's being called The Decision. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Ken(ph). Ken with us from Minneapolis.

KEN (Caller): Yes, thank you. The point that's being missed is that the professional leagues are cartels. I teach economics at Metropolitan State University here. And it's very clear, every economics study I've seen have found that as the salaries go up, the owner still make more money because the owners control the competition by limiting the number of teams. If there was not a cartel, New York would have maybe 10 teams.

And now New York has two baseball teams. The market allows them to still make money though they're paying these outrageous salaries.

CONAN: And indeed, Tom, there's been a lot of speculation there was a salary cap in the NBA. The amount of money LeBron can make from his contract is about the same - you and me might quibble over $30 million - but about the same no matter who he plays for. But on an open market, some people have said, Well, LeBron James could get as much as Alex Rodriguez, easily - $225 million a year more than that.

GOLDMAN: Right. There is a cap. It's called the soft cap, though, because some - you can exceed it if, for instance, if you're trying to retain a certain player. But I think Ken is right, and I think what Ken kind of what his side of the discussion is kind of pointing to is we're hearing that in the next labor negotiations, what appears now to be like the wild, wild West and these players commanding, you know, the maximum amount of money that they possibly can, that that isn't going to happen with the next labor contract, and that things will tighten up.

And that this free willing spending, you know, while it may not be a thing of the past, you know, ownership is going to come down fairly hard on the players.

CONAN: Ken, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

KEN: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's get go next to, this is Dale(ph), Dale with us from Utica.

DALE (Caller): Hi. Thank you for letting me call.

CONAN: Sure.

DALE: I was just going to make a comment that I think that really all the players, all professional players, really owe a lot to Curt Flood, ultimately. I mean, he was really the person who went to bat to get everybody the right to earn what they could no matter where they were playing. However, that didn't come without a cost, the cost being team loyalty. While I completely support all these guys being able to make whether they can, in the end it does seem to have impacted where people ultimately play their careers. They jump from place to place.

CONAN: And the feeling here in Washington D.C., they have this remarkable young pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, but already you hear people saying, well, they needed to wait to introduce him to the major leagues until a certain period of time had passed so that he would have another year before he was eligible for free agency and goes to play for the Yankees.

KEN: Sure, and you don't have to look that far back when you think about the Florida Marlins, I think it was, who won the World Series a few years ago and they completely dismantled. So again, I think that, you know, they all should earn what they can, and they owe Curt Flood a great deal of debt for that. But unfortunately, it cost cities team loyalty.

CONAN: Tom?

GOLDMAN: It does. Thats why, again, tonight could be significant, you know, whichever direction LeBron James goes. If he decides to stay in Cleveland, that will be a strike for team loyalty that Dale's talking about and that would, you know, create a whole different kind of legacy, than if he were to end up going with his buddies Bosh and Wade to Miami or with Amare Stoudemire to New York or wherever else.

So I know there are a lot of people, a lot of traditionalists who love team loyalty, who are - people who aren't - who even aren't from Cleveland who are rooting for him to stay and try and break through with a championship in his home state.

CONAN: Dale, thanks very much.

DALE: Thanks again.

CONAN: Bye-bye. I think we may have time to squeeze in one more caller. Let's go to Victor(ph), Victor with us from Sacramento.

VICTOR (Caller): Yes, hello. I am a triathlete, a professional athlete. And just this week, the triathletes announced the formation of a professional triathlon association, much like the Professional Baseball Association, players association - but of course, this is the very first week of its existence - to address the very same concerns and that is that the athletes want a voice in there destiny.

CONAN: Voice in their destiny. Is this to lobby the people who stage the events to make sure that their people are being paid properly and conditions are good?

VICTOR: Exactly.

CONAN: And how are you doing?

VICTOR: Well, this is week one. We're just registering numbers.

CONAN: Well, good luck.

VICTOR: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. I appreciate the phone call. We'll end with this email from Norm(ph) in Maple Heights, Ohio, which may be near Cleveland. I use LebBron and Maurice Clarett as examples of what to do and not do in life skills discussions with my students. The King James sideshow has tarnished his young crown. If he leaves Cleveland, he will epitomize all that's bad with sport stars: greed. If he stays, he'll have to explain why he put our community through all the weeks of anxiety.

Either way he chooses, he's lost the luster created for someone who has not won a championship ring. And should he leave, he will be remembered with the likes of Art Modell. Well, that's about as bad a thing as you can say for somebody from Cleveland. But greed doesn't really factor into it, Tom, he gets to paid pretty - he could make more money in Cleveland than he could anywhere else.

GOLDMAN: Absolutely, yeah.

CONAN: NPR's Tom Goldman is going to be watching the decision tonight at 9:00. Thanks very much, Tom.

GOLDMAN: Neal, it's been a pleasure taking part in the interview.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: NPR's sport correspondent Tom Goldman. We'll be back with you on Monday. It's SCIENCE FRIDAY: TALK OF THE NATION tomorrow. I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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