NBA Free Agency: No such thing as a traitor

Jun 10, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) looks at the score board during the fourth quarter of game three of the 2014 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 10, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) looks at the score board during the fourth quarter of game three of the 2014 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

Despite the National Basketball Association’s Collective Bargaining Agreement obfuscating franchise transactions, at its core NBA free agency is an incredibly simple concept. First, Player X signs a contract for a specific period of time, a specific payment amount, and any such trade restrictions codified into the terms of the agreement. Second, Player X performs for his NBA franchise until the period of time discussed in the contract expires. Third, Player X satisfies his contract and is free to sign with another suitor or re-sign with his current team if such an offer is extended. Period. End of story.

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NBA roster moves are nothing more than a series of teams and players respectively exercising their freely negotiated and agreed upon contractual rights. Whether the transaction in question is a trade, a signing in free agency, or even a waiver of a non-guaranteed contract, its just legal business. And there is no such thing as treachery in legal business activities. Or so I thought.

When former Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James left his home state of Ohio for South Beach and the Miami Heat in 2010 NBA free agency, many fans and members of the media did not consider LeBron’s decision archetypal business as usual. Some thought it was unfair to Cleveland for him to leave in favor of a super team. Others considered it improper and downright petty to announce his signing with Miami during a televised ESPN special. Largely, people wrongly seemingly felt that James owed a duty to the Cavaliers that transcended the mutually agreed upon terms of his contract.

If one were to Google “LeBron James traitor,” a shocking number—74,000 to be precise—of web pages are found. Indicative of savvy search engine optimization but perhaps questionable narrative perpetuation, three separate Bleacher Report columns lead the initial hits: “LeBron James and the 25 Worst Traitors in Sports History,” “LeBron James Went From NBA Royalty to Hated Traitor in One Step,” and most comically the ridiculous and bluntly titled “Traitor: LeBron Leaves His Kingdom in Ruin.”

It wasn’t just the sports blogs who rolled with the traitor angle; Kevin Hench of Fox Sports wrote a piece titled “LeBron Chooses Treachery Over Honor” in which James is compared to Benedict Arnold—the 18th century American Continental Army general who defected to the British. Apparently the narrative had snowballed so far out of control that NBA player personnel moves were being compared to actions punishable by death.

One Google search result even yielded a guy who took the time to create a Youtube video titled “LeBron James – The Traitor.”

But LeBron James was not a traitor in 2010. Likewise, James will also be free of treachery should he choose to leave the Miami Heat in 2014. In turn, there is nothing traitorous whatsoever about Carmelo Anthony if he decides to leave the New York Knicks. The same can be said about any NBA free agent.

The word “traitor” comes to us from Middle English, by way of the Old French “traitour,” from Latin “traditor,” from “tradere” or to “hand over.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “traitor” as “A person who betrays a friend, country, principle, etc..” Subsequently, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a “betrayal” as “An act of disloyalty.” Finally, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the concept of “loyalty” as “Giving or showing firm and constant support or allegiance to a person or institution.”

Both by definition and colloquially, there is literally nothing traitorous about an NBA free agent joining another team pursuant to legally binding business and contract law . To be a traitor, one much partake in a betrayal. And to betray someone, one must perform an act of disloyalty. And one is disloyal only if one does not show firm and constant support or allegiance to a person or institution. While it is absolutely true that an NBA player leaving one team for another is the antithesis of firm and constant support or allegiance to a franchise, the fact remains that there is no such presumption or expectation of firm and constant support codified into the terms of an NBA contract. 

"Crying about loyalty in the context of professional basketball is about as rational as being upset when a lion eats a gazelle. Just as herbivory is not a part of the logic of big cats, loyalty is foreign to the very fabric of NBA contracts."

NBA players do not sign lifetime contracts; rather, they sign short, fixed term deals. NBA contracts do not include flowery language about desires to remain a member of an organization for eternity. On the contrary, players and their agents vigorously fight for as much flexibility in free agency as legally possible under the Collective Bargaining Agreement. One simply cannot be considered a traitor if one successfully completes the explicitly stated duration requirements of a contract and decides to work elsewhere. Such a notion is at best romantic and at worst remedial.

One of the best things about being a sports fan is developing loyalty to specific teams through thick and thin. Fans who merely feign loyalty or switch allegiances are pejoratively labelled “fair-weather” or “bandwagon.” Sports fandom is  largely about loyalty, coincidentally one of the most powerful and captivating emotions. But it is imperative to separate the concept of fan loyalty with the realities of athlete business.

For fans, sports is a hobby—a stress reliever after a nine to five workday. But to athletes, sports is the nine to five workday. And just as you would not like a third party judging you based on your career decisions, sports fans should not question the character of an athlete who chooses to leverage his free agent potential.

In a perfect world, fans and the media alike would retire “traitor” from our sports vernacular. Unfortunately, I suspect it won’t be long before another writer pens the next #hotsportstake on free agent X being a traitor. Or perhaps even a trader, to use the common misspelling which reflects so fantastically on education in the United States of America.

In an act of apparent altruism, I will spare you all an Oxford English Dictionary breakdown of the word “trader.”