The decision of LeBron James to return to Cleveland to finish his NBA career and his eloquent rationale for the choice will elevate him to the pantheon of American heroes. This act strikes a dramatic blow to the "money is everything" mentality that has permeated sports.
James writes that he cares deeply about the young children and quality of life in northern Ohio. He speaks stirringly to the power of sports to elevate the human spirit and bring a community together. For the first time he has opened up regarding his priorities, decision-making, and larger mission in a way that makes him endearing and inspirational.
LeBron James has been the most impactful NBA player for years, but he also has been one of the most criticized and unloved. He has been a prodigy since high school with some games nationally televised because of his appeal. The heavily hyped way he left Cleveland left a bad impression in much of the public scope. It seemed narcissistic and circus-like, little empathy was shown for the fans of Cleveland.
Less publicized was the large amount of money raised for charity. LeBron was known through endless commercials and promotions which did not seem to bond him with fans. Returning to Cleveland in a way that both admits mistakes and drops grudges for a larger cause will change all that. LeBron’s legacy becomes that of an athlete who really cares about people.
The city of Cleveland has been the butt of jokes for years. It has produced leaders in all fields, is an interesting city to visit, and has many attributes. It won't be a joke anymore. The biggest star in American sports had the freedom to choose from an array of enticing cities and he chose Cleveland for the love of the community.
Don't look now but the Cleveland Browns managed to draft the most exciting high profile young player in the country – Johnny Manziel. Sports fans will now look longingly at a city where it is great to be a sports fan. Sports telecasts focus on a city. Cleveland will once again experience the pride and economic benefits that high profile exposure provides.
I ask each client who is a free agent to do an internal inventory and rank their own priorities. They list short term economic gain, long term economic security, geographical location, family, winning, coaching, and facilities. For most athletes, money wins out. LeBron made a different type of decision that reaffirms traditional American values. James could have held a grudge based on Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's scathing letter and the derision of fans from Cleveland that followed his move to Miami. Instead, he elevated his vision and put love for his community first. He chose love of city and people above all. I ask clients to understand that they are role models -- they can trigger imitative behavior in adolescents and kids.
When Lennox Lewis cut a public service announcement "Real Men Don’t Hit Women," it impacted rebellious adolescents attitude toward domestic violence in a way that traditional authority figures could never do. Athletes can foster positive change and create a climate of empowerment where people are filled with optimism and hope.
I’ve spent 40 years pushing the concept of athletes as community leaders and beacons of change. In one dramatic action, LeBron has set a template for the integration of athletes and the communities that they play in and come from. Rather than hired Hessians skimming the cream from a community and leaving, James sets a standard for civic minded athletes who understand they have responsibilities. Long Live King James!
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.
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