Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Here's What Lebron Should Do

Lebron James has a new Nike commercial. Or perhaps it's more correct to say that Nike has a new Lebron James commercial. Regardless, if you haven't seen it, rest assured it will be difficult to watch a sporting event for the next week or so without being bombarded by it. In it, Lebron tries to address the criticism he's taken over his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami via free agency this offseason. In the commercial Lebron proposes hypothetical scenarios and repeatedly asks us, the audience and his presumed critics, "What should I do?" Since he's asking us in a television commercial, not a news conference or town hall meeting, it's a one sided discussion. With no avenue for response, the questions are undoubtedly rhetorical. Be that as it may, most of his questions aren't all that difficult to answer. So I'm going to help him out with some answers.

Lebron and I were both born in 1984. We both played multiple sports in high school. We're both huge sports fans. We really are remarkably similar. So here's what Lebron should do--coming from someone who's not all that different than he is, but who hasn't been called (and referred to himself as) "The Chosen One" and "King James" for his entire adult life.

Should I admit that I've made mistakes?
Yes. Everyone makes mistakes. Admitting them is an important part of being a good human being.

Should I remind you that I've done this before?
Done what before? Switched teams? I'm not sure that reminding people in Cleveland that you once chose a private high school over a public one is going to make them feel any less bitter and betrayed. Maybe it will reinforce their belief that they never should have trusted and embraced you the way they did, that they should have seen this coming the moment you were drafted and weren't allowed to handpick your friends to be on your team, but is that really what you're looking to do?

Should i give you a history lesson?
On what? Are you in any way qualified to do so? Do we ask historians to shoot jump shots? No.

Should I tell you how much fun we had?
Actually, that's not a bad idea. It's your life and you don't owe anyone any explanations for your decisions. But, since you seem to be courting public opinion, maybe you should try to explain the rationale behind your decision which upset so many people. Maybe if you explain how much fun you had in Beijing with Dwayne and Chris people will understand why you wanted to play with them. But, just warning you, they might not. One of the reasons people loved you is that you always looked like you were having so much fun. You did sideline dances and had pre-game routines with each teammate. You looked like a gigantic 40-year old kid. You may be hard pressed convincing people that you had so much more fun in Beijing than you did in winning 127 games in the last two regular seasons in Cleveland. Few teams ever looked so joyous. Few teams ever looked like they genuinely liked each other so much.

Should I really believe I ruined my legacy?
Not really. But, to speak abstractly, you've probably lowered your legacy's cieling. If you go on to be the best player on a whole bunch of championship teams your legacy will be fine. In forming your pseudo all-star team in Miami you announced that you didn't think you could get it done in Cleveland. You joined Dwyane Wade's team. You may become the best player/alpha dog on the team, but he already won a championship in Miami as the best player. For now, it's still his team. No great player wins without help, but in talking about things as grandiose and ephemeral as legacies, the details matter. Is Michael's legacy diminished because he never won without Scottie? No, but Scottie's certainly is because he never won without Michael. Look at Kobe. Four years ago he requested a trade. He didn't get it and he's gone on to win two championships, without Shaquille, and unquestionably boosted his legacy. So, your legacy certainly remains unwritten. But, no matter how many championships you win in Miami there will always be that nagging doubt--why couldn't he get it done, on his own, in Cleveland?

Should I have my tattoo removed?
I assume you refer to the tattoo on your back that says "Chosen One?" Probably not. Tattoo removal is a long, painful process. It probably wouldn't be worth it. Just maybe think twice next time you're considering getting a tattoo comparing yourself to Jesus Christ. Or at a very minimum, if you want to get another tattoo making the JC comparison, maybe you should win an NBA title with the team you're on, rather than join a ready made all-star team with your buddies to help you.

Should I just sell shoes?
No. Emphatically no. The worst thing about your idol, Michael Jordan, was that, after winning, selling shoes always came first. Nike may pay you an awful lot, but that doesn't mean you have to be a corporate shill. Take a stand on something. You live in Miami now, why don't you endorse someone in Florida's governor's race. Or its Senate race. They're both very close. You could publicly insist that your sneakers get made in a factory with humane and fair working conditions. People will listen to you. Your ability and hard work have given you an extraordinary platform. Use it. Whatever you do, don't ever say anything like, "Republicans buy sneakers too."

Should I tell you 'I am not a role model?'
Only if you want to feed the media maelstrom. You are a role model, like it or not, there's no changing it. Again, it's your life, live it how you want. You didn't ask to be a role model and you don't have to act like one. (And no, just because a basketball team or a shoe company pays you millions of dollars doesn't mean you've implicitly agreed to act a certain way. They're paying you to play basketball and sell sneakers, they don't have the right to tell you how to live your life.) But denying that you are a role model won't change anything.

Should I tell you I'm a championship chaser? I did it for the money? rings?
It doesn't matter if you tell us any of those things, we're going to come to our own conclusions. You look like a championship chaser. You joined a team that's recently won a championship and you joined two other all-NBA players. You didn't do it for the money, because you could have gotten slightly more in Cleveland. That's laudable. Too few athletes in your situation recognize that whatever they choose they're going to have more money than God, so they might as well go wherever makes them happy.

Should I be who you want me to be?
No, be who you want to be. What a silly question.

Should I accept my role as a villain?
If you want to. If it makes you play better. But not if you want to regain the public's affections. People liked you because you always seemed like such a good guy. You had so much fun playing and you smiled instead of sneered and your teammates loved you. That's why no one outside LA likes Kobe.

Should I stop listening to my friends?
No, but maybe stop following their advice. It's very admirable that you've remained so close with your childhood friends and you've brought them along on your ride. But you should also recognize that although they may have your best interests in mind, they may not always be the best people to give you advice. They're kids from your neighborhood, do they really know what they're doing in managing your career? Sometimes the best intentions aren't enough. And as for your new best friends from Beijing, Chris and Dwyane, recognize that they likely have a lot more to gain from a partnership with you than you have to gain from a partnership with them. They may be your friends, but take their advice with a big grain of salt because you have no assurances that they've got your best instrest in mind.

Should I try acting?
Only if Spike Lee comes knocking with an offer to do He Got Game 2. Have you seen Steel and Kazaam? How about Space Jam?

Should I make you laugh?
I don't see why not. Everyone likes to laugh. So, sure. Go for it. Just don't make it your number one priority.

Should I read you a soulful poem?

What should I do?
Understand that you upset an awful lot of people with "The Decision." Understand that The Cavaliers paid you millions of dollars to work for them for seven years and that, by all accounts, they treated you exceedingly well. This obviously didn't obligate you to continue playing for them, but you should have shown some decency and informed them personally that you were leaving, instead of making them find out via a sham interview on national TV. Also, understand that the American economy sucks right now. That lots of people (especially in rust belt cities like Cleveland) are really struggling. That watching you play for the Cavs was a bright spot in a lot of people's lives. You don't owe anything to people who root for you, but it'd be nice to show some empathy and apologize for leaving so callously. There was no reason to put a whole city through the ringer on national TV like you did. Maybe do like your teammate Zydrunas Ilgauskas did and take out an ad in the Cleveland newspaper saying how much you enjoyed playing there. It'd be a nice gesture. Also, stop insisting that "The Decision" was a good idea because you raised $3 million for the Boys and Girls Club. You're rich. You could have given money to the Boys and Girls Club. you could have asked Nike and your other sponsors to match or exceed your donation. You could have spared Cleveland the spectacle.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Football's Big Hit Problem

There were a number of sickening hits in NFL games this past weekend. Violent, full speed, stop you dead in your tracks type collisions. These hits aren't new. They happen every week, it just seemed like there were more of them this week. Brandon Merriweather's helmet to helmet shot on Todd Heap was the most flagrant. The ball was past Heap and he was already being tackled, yet Merriweather still stopped, changed direction, and contorted his body to hit Heap in the head. The Steelers' James Harrison concussed to Cleveland Browns. He stopped Mohammed Mossaquoi dead in his tracks after a catch and before Mossaquoi had a chance to gather and defend himself and he led with his head in making a tackle on Josh Cribbs. A collision between the Falcons' Dunta Robinson and the Eagles' Desean Jackson knocked both players out of the game and left Jackson with a serious concussion and memory loss. It was sickening to watch.

Stunningly, the NFL, which claims player safety as a top priority, handed out no suspensions. Merriweather and Robinson were fined $50,000 and Harrison, as a repeat offender, was fined $75,000. Proportionate to salary, the fines are minuscule and toothless. If Harrison was making $35,000 per year, his fine would be less than $200--similar to a hefty parking ticket. Rodney Harrison (himself once considered the NFL's preeminent head hunter) scoffed at players being punished with fines: "My mentality was if it costs me $30,000 $40,000 $50,000 to be an all pro, than that's the price I have to pay...But when I got suspended, it was, 'Uh-oh.' That was a different mentality now. I'm hurting my team, I'm losing a game check. Let's try to change things up."

The fines would be laughable if so much wasn't at stake. Rutgers player Eric LeGrand was paralyzed this past weekend after a violent collision on a kickoff. Football is a violent sport. Players complain about being policed by people who don't know what it's like to play the game. They complain, and they're right, that there's no way to make it safe. But there are ways to make it safer. If the NFL is serious about protecting its players it needs to make changes. Any helmet to helmet hit should be a mandatory one game suspension for the player who initiated it. The same goes for hitting a defenseless player as Robinson hit Jackson and Harrison hit Mossaquoi. These aren't new rules. They are already on the books, the NFL just needs to give some teeth to its enforcement.

Players will complain that they were taught to tackle one way and now they have to change. So be it. People may complain that the sport is less fun to watch. (This won't be true. Fans may watch football in part for the neck-craning-can't-look-away-collisions, but they don't like them. The Jackson-Robinson collision was like a car crash. Yes, you had to watch, but it was also cringe-inducing, horrifying, and voyeuristic. And as both players lay on the ground, I felt nothing but dread and an uneasy feeling that I really shouldn't be watching this, that these men should not be doing these things to each other for my entertainment.) Again, so be it.

There's no indication that the NFL is taking player safety as seriously as it claims. If it was, it would be suspending players for hits. It wouldn't be quibbling with the player's union over who qualifies for post-career health insurance. And it certainly wouldn't be pushing for two extra games per season. These men put their bodies, livelihoods, and even their lives at risk every time they play. To ask them to do it more often while failing to institute policies that would slightly lessen the risks they face is more than hypocritical, it borders on the criminal.