Is LeBron Really LeLeaving?

The psychology of all-things LeBron.

Posted Jul 08, 2010

Have a gut feeling about where LeBron James is headed? Of course you do. Just like credit cards, Twitter accounts, and... ahem... belly buttons, everybody's got one these days.

The speculation regarding where the two-time NBA MVP and current free agent will play next year has reached a frenzy that has only grown since we learned that the announcement will be aired live this evening via a one-hour ESPN special. As a sports fan, it's a story that simultaneously interests and aggravates me given how drawn out the process has become. As a psychologist, it's the ubiquitous armchair analysis of LeBron's decision-making that intrigues me.

Everyone seems to have their own intuitive take on the psychological considerations guiding his decision. For example:

• There's the LeBron is motivated by the desire to expand his global brand argument, which has him headed towards a bigger media market like New York.

• There's the pull of the hometown theory. LeBron grew up not far from Cleveland, in Akron, Ohio, and still has family, friends, and advisors in the area. It should be much harder for him to sever ties to his current employer given the strength and sheer number of these ties. So he'll stay in Cleveland, right?

• Moreover, there's also the darker side of the hometown coin. Players who defect to new teams do so at the risk of invoking the rage of their previous fans (see Favre, Brett or Rodriguez, Alex for recent examples). In LeBron's case, his home team fans are also his hometown fans. Leaving (without having won a title, no less) wouldn't just upset Cleveland fans–LeBron would instantly go from civic icon to pariah in his very own home state, especially after cruelly revealing news of the break-up on a live TV special, which seems even more crass than ending a romantic relationship by text message. Add another point to the stay-in-Cleveland side of the ledger.

• There's the LeBron just wants to win notion. Cleveland has failed in its previous runs at a title, and some would suggest this is because his supporting cast hasn't been strong enough. Two other top-flight free agents, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, just signed with Miami, so he should follow suit and sign with the Heat, right?

• But then there's the LeBron wants to secure his legacy argument, in which winning isn't all that matters, but winning under certain circumstances is. If he joins a superteam in Miami and wins a title or two, will he ever be seen as a champion in his own right? Or will he be viewed as a guy who couldn't win himself, so he had to leave town and find help? The accolades of winning in Miami pale in comparison to the prospects of almost single-handedly ending the city of Cleveland's multi-decade, multi-sport title drought. If he wants to maximize his potential future payoff, he should stay put, right?

And so on and so forth.

Even the details of the unprecedented ESPN program tonight are fodder for armchair analysis. As one of my Facebook friends suggested yesterday, "I don't think people typically have an elaborate one-hour press conference to announce that nothing is changing." But as another friend suggested, "People don't have hour-long press conferences to announce they are leaving their wife for their mistress."

As for me? Well, I guess it wouldn't be a LeBron post without a prediction. Though the media today says he's leaning towards Miami and Wall Street has started to bet heavy on New York, I'll venture that he's staying put in Cleveland. Don't overlook the power of the status quo effect: the psychological finding that the more difficult decisions become and the more alternatives are available to us, the more likely we are to opt for inaction and keep things as is. That's typically the least risky path to take.

However, I'm not sure that LeBron has had time of late to brush up on his most recent psychology journals. So who really knows what tonight will bring?

Regardless, come tomorrow when he's looking for something to read–whether en route to real estate shopping on South Beach or a welcome home parade in Cleveland–I might suggest the first articles he turn to be from the literature on post-decision dissonance. In the long run, pangs of regret are usually much easier to overcome than a double-team with the shot clock running down.