On July 1, LeBron James becomes a free agent. NBA insiders are tapping their sources to determine where LeBron might land next season, and James’ every move will be heavily scrutinized all summer. We’d hate to be left out of the fun, which is why we’re running a series titled, “Where LeBron Should Play Next Year, According to Someone I Called on the Phone.” For this installment, I spoke to Shawn Klein, a philosophy lecturer at Arizona State University and the proprietor of SportsEthicist.com. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Nick Greene: You are a sports ethicist. Can you tell me what that is, exactly?
Shawn Klein: More generally, I am a philosopher. Within that I focus on sport and ethics. Sports ethics itself is the discipline of asking questions about the moral issues that come about in sport. Things like doping and performance enhancing drugs are obvious topics. And then there are things within sport itself, like the rules and the following of rules. Like the intentional foul—at the end of a basketball game you have players who are on purpose breaking the rules of the game in order to gain an advantage of some kind. Everyone regards it as a perfectly legitimate and expected strategy, but that wasn’t always the case.
I guess the question for you isn’t “Where should LeBron James go in free agency?” but “Is it morally right to go anywhere?”
I think so. Free agency is now a common feature of professional sports and one that I think is important, both for the athlete and the fans. If one team was able to, like the Yankees in the ’20s, sign all the best talent and never let them go, that doesn’t make for a real competitive league. Now, from Cleveland’s point of view, they’re not happy to lose a player of LeBron’s caliber. Of course, they’ve been through this before, so I think that at this point they know how to deal with those emotions.
It’s like how you mentioned that intentional fouls started off as something egregious but are now accepted. When LeBron went to Miami, he was criticized for making a superteam, but Kevin Durant going to Golden State was seen as more normal. Do moral attitudes change with social norms?
Over time, whether you’re talking in sport or in culture, the way we evaluate people’s actions do change based on circumstances and what’s expected and what’s not. As we saw that the great horror of what we thought was going to happen because of free agency didn’t really come about and things are just as fun and interesting or even better in some ways, then people became accustomed to it. It’s like when we legalized marijuana and the end of the world didn’t happen, and so it began to spread to other states.
So LeBron joining the Heat was kind of like the legalization of weed?
Yeah, I guess. I want to make some sort of pun about Heat and smoking but nothing comes to mind.
Are you a basketball fan?
I’m more of a Celtics fan than I am a basketball fan. I grew up in the Boston area and in the ’80s with Larry Bird and Celtics-Lakers, so part of me wants LeBron to go to the Lakers because I want to see that rivalry again.
As an ethicist, where do you think LeBron should go?
I don’t think there’s really any philosophical or ethical argument to be made for him to go to one particular place or another. From LeBron’s point of view, it depends on his goals. If his goal is to win and be in the finals more often, I’d say the 76ers might be his best option because being in the Eastern Conference is probably a better path to the finals. But if he’s looking for a much more dynamic situation and rivalry with Golden State, then it might be interesting if he went to the Lakers.
Certain goals can be more moral than others, right?
Sure, but in this context I think the goals that are on the table are all within the realm of a morally justified choice.
If the goals and factors in LeBron’s decision are all morally equal, would it be ethically sound for me to flip a coin to see where he should go?
I don’t think I said equal. They’re all within the realms of being justified. The Lakers and 76ers are the two top competitors as far as I can tell, and if he sees that they both seem to attach to his values and goals relatively equally, then maybe flipping a coin would be the way to decide.
Given the fact that Cleveland is where he currently is and is also his hometown, does that give it an advantage over other teams?
From LeBron’s point of view or in general?
Not unless that’s something really important to LeBron. He has expressed his connection to Cleveland and it does seem like it’s something that’s important to him, so I would imagine it is part of his evaluation process. But I don’t know if that’s the top value.
He also already brought a championship there, so I think he’s in the clear with that.
If the rumors that it’s between the Lakers and Sixers are correct, I’m just going to flip a coin to see where he should go. Heads is Lakers, tails is Sixers. [I flip the coin.] It’s heads. Lakers it is. He could do that and it’d be ethically fine, right?
Yeah, I have no issue with that. I’d prefer it personally as a fan to get him out of the East to give the Celtics an easier path. If he’s equal between L.A. and Philadelphia and it comes up heads and he goes to L.A., I don’t think there are any moral questions to be raised about that.
Previously in Where LeBron Should Play Next Year, According to Someone I Called on the Phone: