LeBron James is catching a torrent of criticism over his decision to leave his "hometown team", the Cleveland Cavaliers, for the Miami Heat. As an economist, and a sports fan, I find the criticism to be, well, nuts. Here' s why.
1. LeBron is a professional athlete, and pros must make business decisions. This is a $100 million dollar plus decision, and carping from the sidelines is not the same as weighing the pros and cons of alternative courses of action. LeBron had numerous options, and it is his right and responsibility to make the decision that suits him best.
2. It is alleged that LeBron "owes something" to Cleveland since he was born in the state of Ohio. This is nuts. Should Kobe Bryant have signed and stayed with the 76ers for life, rather than the Lakers? Larry Bird for the Pacers? Of course not. Holding LeBron to this standard is inconsistent and unfair.
3. Some criticize James for not being enough of a competitor, by joining a more talented group of players in order to increase his chances of winning an NBA title. Hello? Some also point out that he won't be the "main man" in Miami, since Dwyane Wade is a terrific player and occupies that role already. Holy cow, people! Look, I'm a professor who has been charged with hiring a lot of economists over the years, in buidling a department that can viewed as a team. As a member of that team, the last thing I'm interested in is being "the main man". I want the people we hire to be better than me. I might consider leaving Clemson for another university, if the new place's economists were better than Clemson's. But I tried the flip side of LeBron's choice once, in return for a raise and a lower teaching load. I regretted it, big time. The "main man" criticism of LeBron is stupid. Better teammates is a plus, not a minus, to a good professional.
4. They say that character is revealed when circumstances get tough. I think that's right. Thus, Cleveland's owner Dan Gilbert calling James a narcissist, a quitter, a player betraying the Cavaliers who has thus far gotten a "free pass" -- does it add up that he's a quitter and doing the organization harm by leaving? -- says more to me about Gilbert than James. Gilbert just tried quite publicly to wrest Tom Izzo from Michigan State, a Michigan icon responsible for six Final Four appearances and an NCAA basketball title. Thus (see point 2 above), Gilbert is not only a bombastic and ungrateful blowhard, but a hypocrite, as Lynn Henning points out. LeBron made a good move swapping owners, at least.