Sunday, July 11, 2010

VIDEO Why They Leave

Nothing like the voice of reason from out-of-town friends to help spur the thinking post-Decision. With all the outrage over LeBron's call to go MIA to play with his friends and win some titles, where's the angst over every other 20-something viewing northeast Ohio in a rear-view mirror?

I'm just as PO'd as the next Cavaliers fan. Not at The Decision itself -- LeBron's got every right to decide where he wants to play. That's what "free agent" means. More on that in a moment.

It was the set up, the way it was done -- breaking away on national television with the entire world watching, relegating "always home" to the same status we've become accustomed to watching "The Bachelor" make up his mind on true love. Didn't expect him to stay, but didn't expect him to be so manipulative about it.

That said, the more I hear the hate talk the more I wonder just where that passion is when talking about the hundreds of thousands of young people who've left Ohio in droves, especially northeast Ohio, the past decades. Between 2000 and 2007, Ohio's own Department of Development reports Ohio added only 114,000 people. Our population grew 1%; the national population grew 7.2%, and it shows as school systems (such as those in Akron) scramble to figure out how to keep the doors open for fewer and fewer students.

This is the free market, folks. We Americans vote with our feet. Ohio's future has been voting no.

We've seen Cleveland continue to fall from a titan of industry and prime example of American manufacturing might to a national joke, the lowest of the worst, almost a third-world country within the most powerful nation on earth. Like Detroit, we used to make what everyone bought; now it seems we can't even buy into ourselves enough to provide opportunity to keep our kids here at home. This video from spells it out in plain English: we're not sick anymore, we're dying.

The same public debate so obsessed with where LeBron went, driving hours upon hours serving up LeBron fare for consumption, won't get the same time or attention targeting northeast Ohio's brain drain. So much talk on things that matter so little, because it distracts us from the reality. Karl Marx described religion as "the opiate of the people," but today's environment proves him wrong. It's sports.

The 2010 Census figures are likely to show what all of us know: Ohio's great cities aren't so great anymore, our beautiful suburbs are just a little tarnished, rural Ohio has no hold on it's people. We act powerless to halt the outflow of talented, resourceful and energetic young people seeking opportunity outside the state's borders.

The answers from our political leadership, both sides of the aisle? Bet on it.

It is ironic the same owner of the team LeBron left -- the same owner who flames the player he so desired to keep in the fold -- sees Ohio salvation in the form of slot machines and casino games designed to take, not make. More attention, time and money spent convincing voters to be like Erie, or Wheeling, or even Detroit and build our future on fleecing those desperate enough to turn dreams into cash fed into machines earning the title "one-armed bandits."

Where's today's John D. Rockefeller wanna-be who built the first billion-dollar fortune? Reading Ron Chernow's Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. offers a lesson; it isn't the titan who built an empire, but the industrialist who also left Cleveland because it just wasn't big enough to handle his business anymore. He left in 1914 dogged by tax collectors who went after this son of Cleveland, challenging his residency in New York, because his wife lay dying over the deadline.

What a great irony; Rockefeller was, in part, hounded for taxes from an opportunistic city and LeBron will benefit from tax advantages from an opportunistic team. Both leave behind where it all started because it just isn't big enough to handle their dreams. They see legacy and dollars; we see moments and pennies.

An economy that once made and exported prosperity now stands in line to be made poorer one spin at a time. This is hope for our future? Colleges and universities willing to make tuition more expensive while bemoaning low college graduation rates? Industry seeing the other side of the fence really is greener? Workers and families going mobile, trading comforts of home for chances to grow?

LeBron James leaving isn't the problem we think it is; it's the template we've built. Sports is a mirror that should make us take a hard look at the story line we're really living.

Northeast Ohio sports fans continue to cry about the Sabathia, Thome, Lee and Ramirez's who leave but don't seem to grasp the loss of businesses who buy those suites and stadium ads means team owners don't have money to land top talent, much less keep them here. Browns fans still hate Art Modell for moving the team, even though public policy (and his own miscalculations) left him isolated to the point where there was no hope at home.

It's ridiculous to think one of the poorest cities in America, where the easiest thing to do is find a view defining us as "rust belt", can afford to attract the kind of talent to build something great again. We can't even do that with our own children much less someone like LeBron. He was a two-time MVP on a team that led the league in wins but still couldn't convince his BFF Chris Bosh to sign and play here. We landed Shaq because of the chance to win a ring for the King; will other world-class players look at Cleveland as opportunity now, or will they take the view the rest of the nation has: poor, poor Cleveland. Great fans, great facilities, but...always but not enough to sign if there's a better deal in a place that dreams big.

It's past time to blame the weather, or some sports curse, or supposedly selfish athletes for our woes. Ask your sons, daughters, nieces and nephews if the plus is really worth missing out on the opportunities elsewhere. Remember for thousands of Ohio families that simple conversation comes with a one in front of the area code because that chat won't be held in their living rooms. They'll be talking on long-distance using the family plan in Texas, and Atlanta, and Carolina because that's where the jobs went.

The future has already left the building.

On the subject of LeBron's decision:

In few other occupations do workers have to start their careers in a city not of their choice, but the choice of others based on the drop of a lottery ball. What other professions have workers prohibited from looking for work with the company they choose? The "free agent" window was opened when Curt Flood argued that athletes were not slaves.

LeBron, Wade, Bosh and the rest of last week's NBA crop exercised this most basic of America values; to work for those we want to work for, to grab the best opportunity we can find, to control our own destiny. This was a schooling in the free market, the American way. The NBA owners built a system where their control lasted only as long as the contract, and these players were smart enough to play the system as well as the game on the court.

The method of the move leaves a bad taste, and will for a long time. But The Chosen One did just that -- choose -- when he had the chance.

As a fan of LeBron, I'd like to see him win his rings, but as a Cavs fan not before we get ours. I'd like him to do well and be happy, but think at some point he'll wish he'd stayed and accomplished his dream here at home. I'd like this experience to serve as a teachable moment to a truly talented guy in his mid-20s as well as the posse of friends he keeps around him that there are better ways to realize a goal than the way this played out.

Most importantly, though, I'd like to see us refocus our energies on the things that truly matter: rebuilding this place we call home into a place where people want to live, work and prosper by their choice and not just because of the way a lottery ball falls.

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