LeBron’s return to Cleveland is about more than basketball

July 14, 2014 

LeBron James is returning back to the Cleveland Cavaliers after four years with the Miami Heat. He took the Heat to four straight NBA finals and won two titles during that run. He entered free agency after the recent loss to the San Antonio Spurs and decided to go back to the team he was drafted by and played seven years for. Unlike his last free-agency decision, he wrote a letter explaining his decision to go back to Cleveland.

The story being told is that he is coming back to the Cleveland Cavaliers to try and bring a championship to the city of Cleveland. However, there is a bigger story that has broad implications for many Midwest cities.

James likened his four years in Miami to going off to college, which speaks to a broader mindset. The Midwest has seen several population decreases over the past 50 years as manufacturing sector, once the engine of U.S. growth, has faltered. Many young people leave the Midwest in search of jobs, entertainment, etc. Even those who attend college in the Midwest jump to the coasts, leaving behind an aging population and declining base.

We have seen evidence of African-American athletes use their financial resources to try and revitalized neighborhoods plagued by blight and crime (such as Magic Johnson), this is the first time a current superstar has at his athletic peak used free agency as a means of providing a beacon for his community. While his returning to the Cavs will provide a financial boon to Cleveland and the greater Northeast Ohio region, he wants to show that Cleveland (and thus the Midwest) can be a choice for anyone to work and to live.

The key line in his letter is this one: “Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business.” Municipalities all across the Industrial Midwest have been racking their brains over how to get young people to do it.

LeBron James hopes he is the answer.

Gbenga Ajilore is an economics professor at the University of Toledo, who research centers on public finance and sports economics. She wrote this for The Washington Post.

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