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Lebron Inc. And Keeping The Humanity In Our Game

0 - Published April 8, 2009 by in The Life

Last weekend, Lebron James sat down for an interview with 60 Minutes and talked about his childhood, his NBA career, and his ambitious outlook on the future.  Can he really become the first billion dollar athlete? What are the consequences of turning an athlete into a brand and how do we ensure that lacrosse stays true to its roots?

Watch the ’60 Minutes’ peice and you can almost see the aura of confidence that oozes out of Lebron James.  This is a 24 year old who was picked as “The Chosen One” by Sports Illustrated before he could even vote and has lived up to the hype in every way possible.  Beyond success on the hardwood, Lebron has set his sights on becoming the first billionaire athlete.  “LBJ23″ or “King James: The Brand” wants to conquer more than just sports but clothing (see Nike), media (see his stint on SNL), and finance (catch Lebron on the cover of Fortune).

Sports Are Business

True Life: I am a BlazermanicOk readers, here is a bombshell…I’m a GIGANTIC basketball fan and if you put a gun to my head (please don’t), I would tell you that roundball was my first love growing up in Portland. Yes it’s true, even more than lacrosse (Gasp! Hearsay! Burn the witch!). Additionally, my major was Sports Business in college so I am well aware that making money is part of playing athletics at a high level. That said, seeing athletes become larger than life has always made me wonder about the sacrifice needed to make the jump from millionaire athlete to a corporate symbol used to sell products.  For comparisons, some  similar branded superstars are Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.  This alpha-dog group has separated themselves from all the others and act in many ways like multi-national corporations.  While anyone can appreciate the drive that it takes to reach those heights, I always wonder; is it really worth it? 

Wanna Be Like Mike

Nike’s Jumpman logo Michael Jordan, the first athlete to reach the “brand” level, was criticized by many for his aloofness. MJ had a lack of interest in using his image to comment on world events like racial injustice, inner city poverty, or any political issue because it would turn off potential customers of Brand Jordan.

Tiger has also been portrayed as detached and not politically minded (although that might be starting to change with his involvement in President Obama’s inauguration). 

As Lebron “the basketball player” evolves into Lebron “the media empire” you have to assume he will shy away from potentially controversial subjects that might hurt his earning potential.  For examples of athletes that spurned the money route for a more political one, see Jim Brown and Muhummad Ali. They are leaders in every sense of the word and understood that there are other ambitions beyond becoming the first billionaire athlete. Ali and Brown are athletes who used their platform to make a difference outside of their personal bank accounts. I could write ad-nauseum about the incredible accomplishments and cultural relevance of each man (and reserve the right to in the future). Go read up on them if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Plus, did I mention that Jim Brown played lacrosse at Syracuse? The guy is a stud.

Keeping A Sense Of Community Is Important

Jim Brown played lacrosse in the late ’50sThe feeling of camaraderie is a main reason I appreciate the small niche that lacrosse has carved out of the competitive sports landscape.  At the highest level, most players still have the same “average Joe” persona that makes them much more approachable and human.  There are no “one and done” players in NCAA D1 and many, if not all, of professional lacrosse players still work second jobs because the salary from playing pro isn’t enough to live on.  I’ve always felt this made those top tier athletes more relatable as opposed to a multi-millionaire NBA or NFL player in a fenced off mansion.

As the popularity and salary for lacrosse players continues to rise, will they stay grounded? Probably not. But for me, a main reason I feel so passionate about lacrosse comes from the grassroots mentality of the game.  The lack of big money also makes players more likely to travel the country picking up some extra cash doing camps and teaching younger players.  I’ve coached and attended summer lacrosse camps for so long that I’ve lost count of the lacrosse god’s that I’ve met in person.  To name drop a few I’ve hung out with; Gary Gait, Ryan Powell, John Zulberti (a lot), Ryan and Casey Powell, D.J. Driscoll, Lorne Smith, and many, many more. Each one spent time with me out in a field during the hot summer teaching basics to young kids.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s must-see-TV every time Lebron, MJ, or Tiger are competing.  I’m the guy who watched highlights of Nicklaus’ classic 1986 Masters comeback just because I needed a fix before Tiger returns to Augusta National this week. I also own a worn out tape of Michael Jordan’s “Come Fly With Me” video that still gives me goose bumps to this day. But I’m ok if lacrosse never reaches the big money status of the NFL and NBA.

Those brand name athletes live up in a stratosphere of talent, athleticism, and success that 99.9% of us could only dream of.  We are all justifiably in awe of our big time sports legends but it’s important to also appreciate life among mere mortals.  Lacrosse is a game that is down to earth rather than up in the clouds. Sometimes I think we should all take a step back and appreciate the view.