NBA Players Should Think Twice Before Putting LeBron James in Charge of Their Union

LeBron James, players association president?

Photo by Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

LeBron James apparently has some interest in running to be president of the labor union for NBA players, but I think his fellow players ought to think carefully before handing the job over to a major star.

There are three major axes of conflict in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement. One is that the agreement allocates half the revenue to the players. They used to get 57 percent, and obviously they would like to push that number up while the NBA wants to push it down. Another is that the agreement systematically underpays players on their rookie contracts, because the teenagers who’ll grow up to hold those contracts in the future aren’t yet members of the union, so the union is relatively more inclined to sacrifice their interests than those of veterans. The last is that the agreement caps how much money any given player can earn as an individual. The owners seem to think that this is in their interests (I’m not sure I agree), but it’s definitely not in the interests of James. But in the context of the players collectively receiving a fixed 50 percent of revenue, it is in the interests of the median player.

Every dollar James and Chris Paul and Kevin Durant don’t earn ends up in the pockets of some other player. And in the course of things, the truly amazing players who are spectacularly underpaid under individual max rules are a distinct minority of players. As a union member, I would want my interests represented by someone who—like the typical player—isn’t really worried about bumping up against that ceiling and won’t spend negotiating capital worrying about it.

Now what is true is that there’s probably some value to the players association of having its highest-profile stars be more actively involved as a face of negotiations. That might argue in favor of one of James’ teammates (Shane Battier, say) or more broadly someone who’s close personally to the top stars. Ultimately if the union wants to win concessions in the next round of negotiations, it needs to come up with some way to exploit the fact that there are many fewer substitutes for the NBA’s human capital (its star players) than for its physical capital (arenas, of which there are many more than 29 around the country). That means strategizing with the key stars about fallback plans. But the stars do have unique financial interests at stake in the negotiations that are not representative of the average player’s needs, so union members ought to be wary about putting a star in charge.