The NBA currently should be paying LeBron James to not make a decision, because the incessant speculation and rumors and premature reports have kept the NBA at the top of the nation’s stack of sports news.
For that reason, the NFL should be watching the drama and plotting for a way to create the same kind of one-man offseason frenzy. For plenty of other reasons, the NFL never wants anything like this to ever happen.
LeBron currently represents the one thing NFL owners wouldn’t tolerate — a superstar with full and complete control of his destiny. In the past 20 years, the NFL has seen something close to that only twice. In 2012, the Colts opted for a young and healthy and inexpensive Andrew Luck over an old and injured and costly Peyton Manning. That put a franchise quarterback on the market, albeit with a red flag sprouting from his neck. At the time, no one knew whether Peyton Manning would once again become Peyton F. Manning. And yet there was still a land rush for his services.
A generation before that, defensive end Reggie White became the first high-profile free agent, able to hit the market unfettered by the franchise tag, since the settlement of the antitrust lawsuit filed by White and others allowed the named plaintiffs to become free agents without limitation.
The franchise tag continues to be the thing that keeps a healthy star from becoming a free agent. No NFL owner will let a LeBron James type leave, and the only way a superstar player could secure his freedom would be to take a year-to-year approach after the first application of the tag. Eventually, that one-year salary will become so high that the team can’t keep the player and put a team around him.
Before that ever happens, the player will inevitably sign a long-term deal — unless he’s so committed to getting out of town that he’s willing to bear the injury risk. That has yet to happen in the 20-plus years since the arrival of the current system, and it’s unlikely to happen any time soon.
Unless LeBron ultimately decides that he’s going to play football.