‘The Decision 2.0,’ Dwyane Wade and the American Dream

Bob Donnan / USA TODAY Sports

There are about a bazillion and one possible angles to analyze with this LeBron James saga, and lord knows that this here site here is in the process analyzing just about all of them. Amid all that, I just want to touch on one particular aspect of the story that sparks an interesting social debate, and it has to do with James’ partner in crime, Dwyane Wade.

While yesterday’s news of James exercising his early termination option made wonderful fodder for a good 24 hours of Twitter banter about his future, I think the hoopla is now settling and we’re all a good deal closer to accepting the likely outcome – despite his opt-out announcement, James probably isn’t going anywhere. He’s just backing out of his deal to restructure the terms, rejigger the Heat’s salary cap situation and give the organization a little flexibility to recruit some more talent this summer. The move makes perfect sense – LeBron and his two star teammates learned three years ago that they’re not good enough to win the NBA Finals without role players around them who fit, and they realize now that they need to set out again in search of those complementary pieces. LeBron’s most important sit-downs these next couple of weeks won’t be in Chicago or Houston or L.A. – they’ll be back in South Florida with Wade and Chris Bosh.

The ideal outcome for James is simple – opt out, opt back in for a little less money, convince the other two guys to do the same, then use the newly freed cap space to bring in a few more pieces. Maybe a rim-protecting center, maybe a couple of perimeter players who can shoot. In any event, veteran guys who are reliable and solid.

James gets this, and there’s a good chance that Bosh does too. The one holdup here is Wade, who has made it clear that taking less money is not something that interests him. When he joined forces with James and Bosh this summer, he signed a six-year deal worth $107.565 million, and he’s intent on making every dollar of that money.

Wade was asked about this topic a couple of weeks ago, the day after Game 1 of the Finals, and here was his response, according to ESPN’s Michael Wallace:

“We all think I worked very hard over my career to earn what I’ve earned and put myself in that position. So I will never feel like I have to take less after this, or have to do this. It’s not my job. It’s the job of others around to figure out how to make it work. If I want to be a part of that, then I’ll be a part of that. But if I don’t, I won’t. It’s simple as that. I don’t feel that pressure at all.”

Without a doubt, you can read that quote and instantly surmise what the typical response would be from the casual fan or the media hot-taker. Who are you, Dwyane, to dictate how much money you deserve? To put your own paycheck before the needs of the team? To prioritize your own ego over the collective goal of winning?

Yeah, OK. I get it. I hear you on all of that. And it’s completely understandable, especially after watching Wade tremendously underwhelm in a five-game Finals loss to San Antonio, to raise a bit of a stink about how Wade doesn’t deserve the $20,164,000 that he’s set to earn next season if he doesn’t follow James’ lead and opt out.

But isn’t that a bit hypocritical? We blast pro athletes for being “selfish” at every opportunity we get, but would we ever apply that same logic to our own lives and our own careers? Be honest with yourself – when was the last time you asked for a pay cut?

My answer would be… “uh, yeah, never.” For my day job, I work on a full-time salaried basis as a glorified blogger. I make roughly the national average wage for someone of my age and level of education. Every few months, I sit down with my bosses for a performance review and play up my strengths – “Look, almost all of my sentences were coherent last month!” – and hope that they’ll give me a modest raise. Sometimes I get one; sometimes I don’t. But never does the conversation turn in the other direction. Even if I’ve made a few typos and written a little nonsense, I’m never asked to earn less.

I’d imagine that you, dear reader – whether you write words, flip burgers or do anything else for money in this world – would more or less say the same.

So why can’t we think the same way about Wade? Why must we shame him into taking a pay cut? Doesn’t that fly in the face of the supposed American Dream – the idea that if you work hard in this country, there’s no limit to how much you can achieve and earn?

I tossed this idea out on Twitter a couple days ago, and I got a few responses about how Wade and his ilk are millionaires, and therefore they shouldn’t be held to the same standards as the rest of us. I disagree. While it may be harder to empathize with a max-money NBA star than with your typical blue-collar worker, that doesn’t mean Wade deserves ridicule.

First of all, no NBA player is as rich as he seems – half of that max money goes to Uncle Sam right off the top, then another chunk to agents and other employees, then usually a great deal of it goes toward supporting relatives and friends who aren’t as fortunate. But that’s not the point.

There’s a larger issue here and it’s about principle, not numbers. It doesn’t matter whether Dwyane Wade makes $20,000 a year or $20 million or $20 billion – he should never be told that his self-interest doesn’t matter. We all have a right in this country to further our own livelihoods. That’s kind of what we’re all about.

It’s no secret that we resent athletes all the time in our society. Some people are bitter that they make all the money they make; some are jealous that they get to play a kid’s game for a living instead of slaving away at a desk like the rest of us. Sadly, there are still plenty of people who don’t like seeing inner-city black kids surpass them in wealth and social status.

Whatever the reason, it’s not OK. If Dwyane Wade has a contract to make $20 million this year, he has the right to earn $20 million. His employer and his co-workers and the outside observers might not like it, but that doesn’t have to be his problem.

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what precisely I’m arguing for. Reforming the system – eliminating the salary cap and allowing NBA guys to make whatever the free market allows? I dunno – I’m not smart enough to determine whether that’s feasible. But honestly, I’d settle just for modifying, slightly, the way we go about having this conversation.

This is America, gosh darn it. We’re the most capitalistest, greediest, ambitiousest nation in the world, and we didn’t get to be that way by taking pay cuts. LeBron James may be willing to shave a few dollars off the top, but that doesn’t mean Dwyane Wade or anyone else should feel compelled to. To foist that decision upon anyone would be to turn the American Dream as we know it into a nightmare.

Evans Clinchy