July, 2010 | Bottom Line Ethics

I wrote last week about LeBron James’s over-the-top announcement show. Jim Gray, who interviewed James for the show, is not my favorite announcer. His self-interest comes through loud and clear in what he does, and he claimed in an interview with Charlie Rose last night that the program was his idea. Despite Gray’s lack of objectivity in the matter, he made one valid point. The owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert, vented after James made his decision to leave Cleveland to join the Miami Heat, saying that LeBron was a traitor and that he had quit during the playoffs. Gray pointed out that Gilbert had not let that stop him from trying to sign LeBron, and he said the criticism was way over the top, something he had never seen before.

Then he hasn’t been looking. Burning bridges is becoming an art form in our society. I have not really figured out why this is so. Why are people so willing to sacrifice long-established relationships for the brief satisfaction of retaliating for a hurt?

Of course, many more people spend time on blogs (not this one) blowing off steam and accusing unseen others of having bad motives in their comments. They practice retaliation on people they don’t know without any readily discernible consequences. But this not only changes the quality of our discourse, it changes these people inside. The practiced emboldening enabled by the anonymous blog eventually laps over into conversations with people they know, and even people they love.

When the U.S. economy struggles, employer loyalty tends to wane. Layoffs lead to a generally suspicious tone in many workplaces, where employees no longer believe that management has their best interests at heart. Layoffs lead to accusations against the company, and those making the decisions. There are legitimate reasons to sue employers (including being fired as a retaliatory move for doing the right thing), but doing it just to make yourself feel better and make them miserable is a losing proposition.

Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter is a poster child for bridge burning. However, his transparent reasons for switching parties did not win him great favor within the Democratic party, and he was not even able to survive his first primary contest running as a Democrat. I am pretty confident that he will not be recruited back by the Republicans.

Dan Gilbert’s response to LeBron’s abandonment seemed to be visceral, and not simply contrived, though I am guessing it will sell tickets and pump up season ticket holder loyalty. In fact, many Cleveland fans wrote in offering to pay part of his fine from the NBA for his comments. But he has burned a bridge with his former star, one it would have been hard to imagine him burning just a month or two ago. His temper tantrum will likely have permanent effects.

Perhaps the most devastating bridge burning I have seen has been in failing marriages, where one hurt is layered on top of the next. And it not only twists the characters of the vengeful parents, it leaves scars on the children that linger long after. I weep for those kids.

There may be bridges worth burning, but most are not. I have come within a word or two of doing it on occasion. In fact, in a few instances, I have likely said that word or two. But I am hard at work learning never to do it again.

I can say it is because life is too short for prolonged anger, and that is true. But, more importantly, in surrendering to the temptation to retaliate, I have allowed that other person to control who I am as a man. They have no right; only I can give it to them.

And it is my hope, in the inevitable day when my personal circumstances deteriorate because of someone else’s actions, that I will not give them that right.

Categories: Athletics

Sometimes even nice people are so self-serving that they deserve a blog of their own. Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James is not a very interesting character for me to write about normally. But tonight, he will announce to a breathless world where he will be playing basketball for the next five or six years. Since the announcement consists of one word (probably “Miami” or “Cleveland”), it seems a little over-the-top to schedule a one-hour special with a full slate of commercials. That is, of course, unless you see yourself as an industry rather than a person.

Of course, some of the money from selling the advertising will reportedly go to the Boys and Girls Clubs, a very worthwhile charity, and one that James faithfully supports. I have seen the kind of difference they make in our community, and I am hesitant to be critical of any effort that benefits them, even if the whole thing smacks of self-promotion.

But the self-worship that characterizes the NBA nowadays makes it difficult for me to be objective in evaluating motives. It is becoming increasingly difficult to identify stars with at least significant vestiges of humility any more. I lived in San Antonio for the prime of Tim Duncan’s career, and I watched him willingly share the limelight with teammates like David Robinson, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker. In fact, he was always the person speaking to the press about the exploits of those who were rarely lauded—Bruce Bowen or Steve Kerr or Malik Rose. And he won four championships, none of which the San Antonio Spurs would have won without him.

Now NBA players seek their own cult following. Dwayne Wade, the Miami Heat star who is trying to lure James to his team, was on TV today wearing a t-shirt that said Miami-Wade County, a take-off on Dade County, Miami’s home. This is not a t-shirt you wear YOURSELF; you leave it to all those people-worshippers who pour their money out to sustain money-producing machines like the NBA. But there he was, wearing this “worship me” shirt on national television, completely unaware that there might be an issue in doing so.

This might make Miami the perfect fit for James. Certainly, Shaquille O’Neal found his last professional relevance there, in a place where he was as famous for his house as for anything he did on the court. What better place than South Beach to operate as a stratosphere of stars who really enjoy looking in the mirror?

Since Miami is also planning to sign Toronto Raptors star forward Chris Bosh, they will have to trade Michael Beasley, one of their two remaining players, and the only one making any real money. That will mean, under NBA salary cap rules, that Miami will have to sign eleven other players to minimum contracts. It will be a roster of misfits, used-to-be’s and never-wases, and they will probably win two or three NBA titles. Bring back Stephon Marbury and Latrell Sprewell! They will carry the water, literally, for the three stars. Start working on your jump shot, because you are a candidate. And you can’t wipe the smile off NBA commissioner David Stern’s face.

Because he knows that self-serving sells tickets. It also sells business deals, and gets you CEO jobs and key government appointments. This is, unfortunately, because we are a nation of people worshippers—politicians and corporate leaders as much as athletes. We tune in to await the latest wisdom and to validate ourselves in identifying with them. Nothing can deter us—lying executives, politicians without consciences, athletes in every sport from baseball to cycling using performance enhancing drugs. Because performance is all that matters—not character, not conscience, not substance.

And tonight, America will tune in for the latest performance.

Categories: Athletics

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