Chatter about NBA icon LeBron James’s potential move to New York in 2010 has filled the airwaves of sports radio for the past two weeks. In reality, it’s not just LeBron, but the entire 2010 free agent market that has NBA executives chomping at the bit. The summer after next has the potential to change the entire landscape of the NBA, but it seems ridiculous to focus on it when it is more than 550 days away. When we obsess about free agency in the distant future, we fans are complicit with the forces that have transformed sports into business and players into commodities.

This past Friday, Nov. 28, New York had its best day of trading in recent memory; of course, the trades were made a $12 taxi ride away from Wall Street, at Madison Square Garden. In rapid succession, the Knicks traded away the expensive contracts of their two top scorers, Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford, to the L.A. Clippers and Golden State Warriors, respectively. The trades created salary cap space for 2010 to accommodate LeBron and other superstars whose contracts expire.

Sports writers might be getting a bit ahead of themselves to say LeBron is going to New York two seasons from now, and fans in Cleveland might get a bit defensive when told LBJ won’t resign with the Cavs at the end of next season, but the recent release of the ‘LeBron VI Big Apple” suggests otherwise. On Nov. 25, when the Cavs visited the Knicks, King James debuted his brand new kicks the not-so-subtle New York-themed Nikes adding to speculation of a future move to NYC.

Other than James, many of the game’s biggest stars are also slated to become free agents in 2010. Amongst the potential free agents are Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, Tracy McGrady, Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Manu Ginobili and Chris Bosh. Many of these stars will be re-signed by their current teams before July 2010, but a few big names will certainly be shopped around.

Perhaps the Knickerbockers are clearing space for any one or even two of these guys. It’s possible, but unlikely. By trading away Randolph and Crawford less than 20 games into the season, New York has virtually thrown in the towel on this season and next. The move seems rather drastic, but it certainly makes sense if the Knicks are making way for a king (and perhaps another free-agent star to play the superhero’s sidekick).

The stage is set, but isn’t it a little early for all of this? Sir Charles Barkley certainly thinks so. ‘If I was LeBron James, I would shut the hell up,” Barkley said on ‘Dan Patrick Radio” last week. ‘I’m a big LeBron fan. He’s a stud. You gotta give him his props. I’m getting so annoyed he’s talking about what he’s going to do in two years. I think it’s disrespectful to the game. I think it’s disrespectful to the Cavaliers.”

James didn’t quite hold the same sentiments: ‘He’s stupid,” he said about Barkley. ‘That’s all I’ve got to say about that.” He clarified the statement a few days later, saying, ‘I think you do what is best for you and you do what is best for your career.”

The elimination of the reserve clause in 1975 was perhaps the biggest change in sports history, as it opened the door for free agency. Under the reserve clause, players were bound to the team they played for. After 1975, they became free to negotiate their own contracts, leading to the exorbitant salaries players earn today. It has also led to the commoditization of athletes.

Because of these lucrative contracts, players are often seen as investments, not athletes. The most evident example of this is the NFL quarterback. Many fans have complained about how protected the QB is and that it takes away from the intensity of the game. On the other hand, if I owned an NFL franchise, I would certainly want as many rules as possible to protect my multimillion-dollar investment. When players make as much as they do, it’s tough not to consider them financial assets.

Surprisingly, the most levelheaded person involved in the LeBron mess is part-owner of the New Jersey Nets, James’s close friend, Jay-Z. The rap idol is planning to move the Nets from Jersey to Brooklyn in 2010 and told Esquire magazine that LeBron on the Nets ‘would be a dream for me.” He continued, ‘But he’s my friend first. I want the best for him wherever he is. He’s my friend before he’s a commodity.” If Mr. Carter gets it, why can’t the rest of us?

Starr’s column appears weekly. Starr is a member of the class of 2009.

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