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LeBron James opt out: A league where stars have a little bit more power

Ronald Martinez

The big sports news today is the report that LeBron James will opt out of his contract with the Miami Heat and become a free agent. While the NFL remains in hibernation for the next month, we now know what will carry us in the latter half of the World Cup.

Free agency begins on July 1, but players cannot officially sign new contracts until July 8. The World Cup wraps up on July 13, and I have to think LeBron will have signed somewhere at that point. This will be a crazy story until he makes his final decision. It sounds like Miami remains the favorite, but you know the rumors will be flying until a new deal is done. SB Nation's Paul Flannery put together a quick little FAQ on the situation.

Every year the NBA has its share of big name players opting out of their contracts to hit free agency. This year, LeBron joins Carmelo Anthony in opting out. I don't pay enough attention to basketball to tell you every player who has opted out, but I'd imagine there are more. It's part of the aspects of sports labor law that I happen to find fascinating. I know that not everybody will agree on that.

The power of players in the NBA and MLB as compared to the NFL is always interesting. MLB has the strongest union in sports, and it has led to monster guaranteed contracts that dwarf those in football. When Brian McCann is getting more fully guaranteed money than any NFL player, that's saying something.

While the NBA players union is a mess, that does not stop the superstars of the league from dictating a lot of the terms. The most significant recent example was probably the decisions of LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh to come together down in Miami and former a "super team". It worked out well for them as they won two titles and went to four straight NBA Finals. They were criticized throughout, but they did something that few teams have done in NBA history.

The NFL has its superstars, and you could make the point that "star" quarterbacks have more power than most. We've reached the point where a star quarterback is pretty much guaranteed a $100 million contract. It makes Alex Smith's situation all the more interesting. He's been a valuable part of two playoff teams, but does anybody actually see him getting that monster APY? He's probably a bit too old to get a $100 million deal, but could he get that "$18 million per year" that some have thrown out there?

The NFL still has a middle class of players, but it has been sapped to some extent by the current CBA, and the top-heavy nature of quarterback contracts. The current CBA provides for a rookie wage scale that makes it cost effective to get younger. Even if a team blows a top pick, it's not a back-breaking situation like it was in previous years. Veterans can still get an edge with the minimum salary benefit, but that only helps players that are going to earn the veteran minimum. There are still "middle class" players, but it really feels like we've seen a change.

I've seen several mentions here and on Twitter about the notion of creating some sort of exception for the quarterback position, or some sort of separate salary cap. I'm not entirely sure how a separate cap for the QB position would work, but I can see some kind of superstar exception along the lines of the Larry Bird Exception that we've seen used in the NBA. I suppose this could just be a single allowable option for a team to re-sign any veteran, but I'd imagine any team with a big-time quarterback would try and use it for the quarterback. NFL owners would fight against something like this given the extra spending it would entail. And given that they have been able to push back to some extent on player costs, I don't see them giving in on this anytime soon.

Also, while this is not a 49ers story by any stretch of the imagination, there have been a couple amusing tweets: