LeBron James, the revolutionary

A big legal win by the high school hoops star could be a damaging blow to the plantation system known as amateur athletics.

Published February 8, 2003 11:05PM (EST)

I've never met LeBron James, but I'm beginning to like him.

Considering the pressure the outside world has put this kid through already, he's shown considerable class. A lot of kids would simply have accepted the ban rendered on James by the Ohio High School Athletic Association and said, "The hell with them. I'll just sit back and wait for the National Basketball Association draft to make me a multimillionaire." He could sleep late tomorrow and see how many new Hummers (like the controversial $50,000 model his mom gave to him recently) are parked in front of his residence in the morning and how many new retro jerseys (like the two, worth an estimated $845, that brought about his ban from high school basketball) arrive in the afternoon mail.

Instead, James has postponed immediate gratification and sought and won a decision from a judge that resulted in a two-game suspension rather than a "lifetime ban." Some might be cynical about James' motives, suggesting that the playoffs and likely the national championship for St. Vincent-St. Mary would be a terrific showcase for James' talents. But let's be realistic. Why does someone who's a cinch to go No. 1 in the next NBA draft and sign multimillion-dollar endorsement deals before spring need to worry about having a larger showcase?

James is already the most celebrated schoolboy player in basketball history; is more publicity going to bring his shoe contract to, say, $105 million instead of just $100 mil? It appears that the kid has a sense of loyalty to his teammates and school, which is harder to find in sports these days than good taste in a beer commercial. Meanwhile, pay attention to James and the legal turmoil that's surrounding him, because years from now he may be remembered as more than the greatest basketball player in the world. He may be remembered as the guy who fired the first shot in bringing down the greatest monolith in sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

How and why? Let's take this one step at a time. It wasn't LeBron James' high school that suspended him for accepting the retro jerseys. Coach Dru Joyce II was ecstatic about the judge's decision and proclaimed that LeBron was "part of our family." Of course it's difficult to imagine any coach whose team was about to go into the playoffs who wouldn't want LeBron James in the lineup. St. Vincent-St. Mary's headmaster David Rathz was unhappy only because the court decision wasn't a clear-cut victory for James. "It was like a tie," he said. "I don't like ties." Rathz sounds to me like he has the makings of a great football coach. And I guarantee you that ESPN, which has already broadcast one of James' games -- it got a higher rating than the National Hockey League All-Star game -- isn't unhappy about the decision, either.

The only ones who are not happy are the board of directors of the OHSAA. The OHSAA is to Ohio high schools what the NCAA is to America's colleges, that is, an organization whose primary function is to maintain the outward facade of amateurism that surrounds an enormous profit-making industry. Which is to say that in no way are high school or college sports "amateur" except in that they don't pay the people who generate the revenue. High schools and colleges join organizations like the OHSAA and the NCAA to protect themselves from lawsuits and from the enormous cost of having to pay and compete for athletes' services. But there's a concealed risk. When an athlete like LeBron James understands that the rules are carefully constructed to exploit him -- when he understands that everyone is making money but him -- he can turn pro. He wins. His high school or his college loses.

In overturning the OHSAA's ruling to ban James, Summit County Pleas Court Judge James R. Williams wrote that "competing for a state championship and, ultimately, a national title, are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that can be completely lost" by one loss due to an absent star, or one game forfeited because of a regulatory ruling. What Judge Williams was saying is that LeBron James and all his teammates have worked long and hard for an opportunity to be champions and don't deserve to lose it simply because some bureaucrat sitting in an office somewhere doesn't approve of a high school basketball player getting a couple of free shirts.

I don't know about you, but this strikes me as being so common-sensical that it shouldn't have had to go to court to be affirmed. But there are company men like Steven Craig, lawyer for the OHSAA, who would argue otherwise. As Craig said in response to the ruling: "If the amateur rule is stricken or the athletic association is neutered in its ability to enforce amateurism, then I think pure wholesome amateur athletics take a turn for the worse." People who think like Mr. Craig are either knaves, fools, or incredibly naive. "Pure, wholesome amateur athletics" do not involve broadcasting high school games on ESPN. Amateur athletics of the kind Craig represents are merely concerned with who will reap the pure, wholesome rewards of this so-called pristine amateurism.

In and of itself, Judge Williams' ruling sets no legal precedent, but it is the first time that a court has ever intervened and established that a high school or college athlete has rights beyond those granted to him or her by the regulatory bodies that their school belongs to. It's a crack in what has up to now been an impenetrable wall of power and influence that has kept thousands of high school and college kids churning out money that is divvied up by and distributed to self-appointed hierarchies that have somehow acquired the power of lawmaking bodies.

Today the OHSAA, tomorrow the NCAA.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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