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Is there too much freedom in free agency?

Reader, you are probably a Grinnellian, and therefore you expect a little something extra from a sports column. I’ve had all summer to think of a subject for my first entry. I figured it had better be some kind of sleeper topic that hasn’t been covered to death in the national media. Recently, I found just the thing.

Did you realize that LeBron James is going to play for MIAMI?

As in, the Miami Heat? A team whose name forces you to think things like “when LeBron becomes a Heat” and then floss the old left hemisphere? —Of your brain, people. This is a family column.

Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are going there, too.

Now that you’ve absorbed the news, I ask a question— do you think of LeBron and his fellows as mercenaries?

A lot of people do. I’ve seen fans refer to the new “Miami Mercenaries” online. The NBA blog “The Bleacher Report” has run a post called “Miami Mercenary: Why LeBron Is Basketball’s A-Rod.”  Howard Bloom, the publisher of, said in anticipation of LeBron’s much-mocked televised special, “Let’s call LeBron James exactly what he is. He’s a basketball mercenary.”

The problem with calling James, Wade, and Bosh mercenaries, however, is that mercenaries are supposed to sacrifice good conscience for money, and the new Heats gave up a lot of cash to play together—according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, nearly fifty million dollars among the three of them.  Nonetheless, basketball fans in 49.5 states are feeling little sympathy with the choice.

I’m as interested in the backlash as I am in the decision. Why are most of us so upset with a guy who took less money to play where he wanted to play?

In this case, calling LeBron a mercenary indicates that we’re uncomfortable with the freedom of today’s free agents.  Most people like the idea of workers claiming a degree of autonomy, but in some cultural arenas, we want freedom to be constrained.  The adjective “mercenary” indicates the speaker’s sense that important values have been sacrificed for money. We use “mercenary” to designate the areas we think should be guided by higher considerations than contracts and self-interest.  A politician, artist, soldier or spouse who chooses the highest bidder is a mercenary—someone who seeks the best rate on a savings bond is just an investor.

When we call an athlete a mercenary, then, we usually mean that the athlete has chosen an attachment to money over commitment to teammates and fans. However, we also signal our belief that sports is one of the cultural fields that should be controlled by values higher than lucre-hunting. I suspect that James has been called a mercenary because we don’t have many ways of describing a selfishness that involves giving up money.

The idea of James as a mercenary draws upon other aspects of anti-mercenary rhetoric. For two and a half centuries, Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment writers have used the mercenary to signify the excess of individual freedom: they are freebooters, freelancers, free agents. The idea of freelancing, in fact, comes from Walter Scott’s novel “Ivanhoe,” where Scott coined the phrase “Free Lances” to refer to mercenary soldiers; only much later did the freelancer become a morally neutral figure of independence from a single employer.

Scott wrote frequently about mercenaries, and he used them to signify not only an excessive thirst for money but also a violation of what he called “local attachment.” For Scott, as for Cleveland Cavaliers fans, the free agent should freely sacrifice self-interest to express territorial loyalty.  In choosing Miami over Cleveland, LeBron James revealed himself to be a territorial rather than an economic mercenary.

He thus shattered the fantasy of sports fans that athletes possess “local attachment,” that they reciprocate the geographic loyalty of the tailgaters who throng to see them play. Every team’s fans participate in that fantasy, but it possesses even more power in areas experiencing economic decline and population drain. Fans in places like Buffalo, Cleveland and Green Bay care so much about their teams because a win lets them indulge the notion that, for once, all those people who moved away to Portland and San Diego and, yes, Miami will look back and say, “Man, I wish I could be in Pittsburgh celebrating right now.”

(I grew up outside Buffalo and come from Cleveland and Pittsburgh stock, so I’ve seen some of this first-hand.  Obviously, I became part of the problem when I left the rust belt for sun and surf. And piles and piles of cash.)

If the mercenary—imagined as excessively self-involved, overly mobile, too interested in transitory pleasures (“taking my talents to South Beach”)—represents cultural anxieties about too much freedom, its opposite is the literal or metaphorical slave. Mercenaries and slaves are frequently coupled in 18th- and 19th-century writing, and the dichotomy sometimes appears in more recent times.

In the debate about military conscription in the U.S. during the Vietnam War, for example, the government studied the issue through the Gates Commission, which included the famous free-market economist Milton Friedman. This is Friedman’s account of what has become a well-known story about the testimony of General Westmoreland, then the top commander of American troops in Vietnam:

“Like almost all military men who testified, [Westmoreland] testified against a volunteer armed force. In the course of his testimony, he made the statement that he did not want to command an army of mercenaries. I stopped him and said, ‘General, would you rather command an army of slaves?’ He drew himself up and said, ‘I don’t like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves’. I replied, ‘I don’t like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries.’”

When someone is accused of mercenary excess of freedom, the defense will often involve some form of this question: would you then have him or her be a slave?

So it was with James. After LeBron announced The Decision, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert, wrote a public letter attacking James’s narcissism and cowardice. Jesse Jackson wrote that Gilbert’s “feelings of betrayal personify a slave master mentality. He sees LeBron as a runaway slave. This is an owner-employee relationship—between business partners—and LeBron honored his contract.”

This is a tension that has persisted for centuries. On the one hand, you have the mercenary, the monstrous personification of the freedoms offered by modern societies, freedoms that may break down traditional attachments between people and their native localities. On the other, the slave, the embodiment of attachments so excessive that they obliterate self-determination altogether.

When people criticize LeBron James for leaving Cleveland, they implicitly express a question that writers like Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson asked themselves as they outlined the tenets of modern commercial society in the 18th century, one that we continue to ask today—how do we acquire and exercise powerful freedoms without sacrificing our social and geographical ties?

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    Nick SmithSep 14, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    Brilliant piece. I remember the backlash to this news specifically because people I knew, who cared nothing at all about sports, were really upset with Lebron. I was astonished, but realized that Americans often feel that we have the right to tell our sports stars (maybe all celebrities really) what to do. Millions of Americans were furious with this man about choosing a job and a city to live in! It is a strange world where the public thinks it has the right to tell certain individuals that they must live and work in a certain city. Obviously Cleveland fans would feel betrayed, but it seems like the rest of the country shouldn’t have a vested interest in where one man wants to work.

  • M

    Michael SchoelzSep 14, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    Wow, this pretty much expresses everything that I think about Lebron, But as I was reading I felt like a really good piece to apply this to is Bill Simmons Rules for Being a Fan. I wish I could post more but I only have a minute right now…