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LeBron James and the NBA teach us a lot about labor in America

Even LeBron James can’t get paid what he’s actually worth

Workers take down the LeBron James banner outside the Cleveland Cavaliers arena on July 3, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Angelo Merendino/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

One of the most important legacies of LeBron James’s remarkable career will be one of player autonomy. He set the standard for an era of perceived labor power in pro sports. We now believe athletes should have greater agency to set the terms of their employment.

At three critical junctures in his career, James dictated the terms of his employment to the league’s billionaire owners. During his second stint playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, he exercised self-determination to an unprecedented degree, wresting control of much of the team’s future away from its owner. On a recent podcast, after James said this week he would sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, the Ringer’s Chris Ryan said he thought of LeBron as the first “post-team” player in the NBA.

But James’s career also reveals the limits of labor autonomy in an infrastructure with such a power imbalance. NBA players have negotiated terms from their ownership that are far superior to America’s biggest sports league, the NFL. But their contract can still prevent somebody like LeBron — even the greatest player in the world — from playing for his real market value.

The max salary prohibits James from realizing his full worth. And it’s also helped establish the Golden State team juggernaut that has beaten LeBron for the NBA title in three of the past four seasons. The Warriors just added DeMarcus Cousins this week to a two-time-defending-champion core of Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Steph Curry. The team’s owner is able to keep this group together, at least in part, because there is a limit to how much those highly skilled players can be paid.

These are the working conditions of perhaps the most singularly gifted worker in America at a time when the Supreme Court is rolling back the collective bargaining rights of public workers who will never attain even the limited autonomy that James’s superstardom has afforded him.

“You can be a superstar basketball player,” Richard Yeselson, a contributor editor for Dissent who has commented extensively on labor issues over the years, told me. “You can’t be a superstar steelworker or nurse or bookstore clerk or elementary school teacher.”

Those will be LeBron’s twin legacies in terms of pro sports’ labor rights: He pushed the boundaries of player agency more than anybody before him, but the inherent restrictions and inequalities of the system he worked under helped create a team that even he, perhaps the greatest player in the sport’s history, couldn’t beat.

LeBron was a pioneer in giving more athletes more control of their future

James’s career ushered in a new norm of player sovereignty in professional basketball. After years of watching his owner and management team fail to build a winner in Cleveland, he engineered the birth of a new superteam in Miami in 2010. He defied Miami’s front office a few years later to return to Cleveland. Upon his homecoming in Ohio — and with the letter penned by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, poisoned by contempt for his employee, having aged far worse in the public consciousness than LeBron’s decision to leave — James refused to give up leverage.

He signed a series of one-year deals, using the constant threat of his leaving to force Gilbert — who was gifted a second chance after his team lost one-quarter of its value when James left the first time — to spend exorbitantly on the team to put a championship contender on the floor. Gilbert did, and the Cavs won a title, helping James erase the one conceivable blemish on his personal playing legacy, now made up of four MVP awards and three championship rings.

This is how Will Leitch summed up the influence of LeBron’s decisions, particularly that first move to seize control of his destiny and move to Miami, for NBC News:

Indeed, in the eight years since James’ decision, the idea of athlete autonomy — of a player having more control and power over his or her own career, of not just being an employee of an owner who is not the one out running and dunking — has caught on in the public consciousness in a way it had failed to before. James’ move was the instigating act.

“What LeBron has done now twice — starting with the ‘big three’ in Miami which he pulled together — is to maximize his personal leverage within the overall rules of the NBA road,” Yeselson told me. “And because the NBA contract is the most player friendly and he is the greatest player, he can really maximize his leverage.”

LeBron has been bolstered, as Yeselson notes, by one of the more player-friendly collective bargaining contracts in professional sports. There is nothing as egregiously anti-labor as the franchise tag in the NFL dictating James’s fate; that tag quite literally prevents a player from leaving the team that controls his interests. He also has more freedom than Michael Jordan, to whom James is always compared, who tried and failed in the 1990s to challenge the NBA’s free agency restrictions under the Sherman Antitrust Act.

But that freedom is not absolute. And the restrictions that NBA owners have put on their players bear direct responsibility for the construction of the five-All-Star monstrosity in Oakland, a team that not even LeBron, for all his individual greatness, seems to have any hope of beating.

But LeBron has still run up against the limits of his labor power

The culprit is the NBA’s maximum salary. A player with James’s tenure cannot be paid more than 35 percent of the league’s salary cap, or $35.7 million, next season. The league’s CBA also allows teams that currently control a player’s interest to pay them slightly more, giving teams a financial carrot to dangle over their players to retain them. By any empirical metric, LeBron is worth a lot more than $36 million: When he left Cleveland in 2010, the Cavs lost about $120 million of their value and Miami, his new team, gained another $60 million in worth for its owners, per Forbes.

That fundamental piece of the NBA labor infrastructure has helped Golden State — which also benefitted from great drafting, the archaic ritual that gives teams the opportunity to claim a player’s rights by no more than chance, a literal lottery — build its super-team.

The Warriors had Curry, Thompson, and Green locked up for years on cost-controlled contracts. They were literally the best bargain in sports. Then the max salary — paired with a historic spike in the salary cap as the game grew more popular — gave Kevin Durant an opening to join them. He was going to be paid roughly what he was in Golden State, about $25 million, no matter where he played. Why not join the best team in the league, if the pay is the same, and win a few legacy-defining championships?

“There is so much more money as a result of TV deals that elite players can move without incurring too much of a markdown to intrinsic value,” Michael LeRoy, a professor at the University of Illinois who has studied sports and labor, told me.

But the max salary is the tool that owners have used to assemble such a gaudy collection of talent as we’re seeing in Golden State. Now they’re adding DeMarcus Cousins, an All-NBA center coming off a serious injury, who is signing a LeBron-esque one-year $5 million contract with an eye toward increasing his value, and exercising his right to choose an employer, in 2019.

If the New York Knicks, a bedeviled but historic and wealthy franchise that Durant reportedly might be interested in helping to revive at some point in his career, could offer the two-time NBA Finals MVP an unlimited amount of money, Durant might have left the Warriors already or never gone there in the first place. That’s if New York could have given him a $50 million-per-year contract. He, like LeBron had before him, is keeping his options open with a series of one-year contracts.

But for now, Durant has little reason to leave the best team in the league, maybe the best team in league history, beyond his own whims and competitive desires. The financial incentive is not really a concern, because the owners have artificially restrained how much players, even those of Durant’s caliber, can make.

“Even LeBron can’t get what’s he’s really worth to franchises who increase their market value every year,” Yeselson told me. “There are still maximum contracts, both in salary per year and in lengths — LeBron is probably worth a lot more money than whatever the given maximum is.”