LeBron James and the Beginning of the End

lebron.jpgLeBron James’ one-hour ESPN special–THE DECISION–marks a sea change in sports, media, and sports media. And none of these changes are good.

I struggled to think of something snotty or sarcastic to write about this event, but the more I wracked my brain, the more I came back to this simple fact: This is not funny at all. This is deeply, deeply fucked up.

Yes, LeBron is donating advertising proceeds for this thing to The Boys and Girls Clubs (how much of the total proceeds remains to be seen). But that just sugarcoats what this really is: An enormous figure in a certain field buying a glorified infomercial on the number one news outlet for that field. ESPN is supposed to be a news organization, and this pretty much destroys any objectivity and credibility they have.

It’s certainly not the first time ESPN has kowtowed before a huge star in a certain sport. They cover each agonizing Brett Favre retirement saga with unquestioning reverence. Despite whispers that Tiger Woods might not be the best guy in the world, ESPN never had any tough questions for him until his personal problems became un-ignorable.

Such glossing-over and looking the other way is unremarkable in sports media. There’s always been an undercurrent of Hero Worship amongst sports reporters, and most of them would rather keep locker room access than lose it by asking pointed questions. But to actually allow an athlete to, for all intents and purposes, buy time on your network to erect a monument to himself? That brings this to a whole other, creepy level.

LeBron has chosen ESPN to be the stage for this exclusive show, which makes sense, since he’s been their lead story every single day since the NBA Finals ended. But what kind of favor does that buy? What happens when a news network becomes so invested in a certain person that person can not fail and can not be made to look bad? If you took a peek at FOX News between the years of 2000 and 2008, you might have an idea.

And yes, of course, the stakes are much, much lower for anything LeBron will do with his life than the things that FOX News covers on a daily basis. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I think you can see parallels, no?

What is the purpose of this event? The purpose of this event is to be an event. THE DECISION has nothing to do with the NBA, or basketball, or even sports, really. It is just another spectacle in the never-ending summer blockbuster that is LeBron James. He’s not a competitor–he’s a conglomerate. There are many athletes in many sports about whom you could say the same, but LeBron is the ne plus ultra.

There’s always been something unseemly about LeBron James the Public Figure, something unapproachable and removed from mere humanity, right down to his nickname: King James. What is his biggest ad campaign? We Are All Witnesses. There is no interaction between LeBron and the rest of the world. We must simply stand back and watch what he does, because we could never hope to touch his regal garments.

Even when he gets goofy, it’s weirdly insular. Like the ads from a few years ago, where he played different members of a fictional LeBron family. It’s still LeBron playing with himself. Only LeBron is good enough to be with LeBron.

Whoever LeBron signs with, this special will be a celebration of nothing but himself. We’ll get the obligatory soft-focus interview, with softball questions about how tough this all must be for him. Slo-mo shots of LeBron throwing the chalk dust in the air (ironically, in front of adoring crowds he will, in all likelihood, now turn his back on). And then he’ll hand the rose to some lucky team, and ESPN will get to EXCLUSIVELY dissect the move and what it means for the NBA–while never mentioning the fact that the NBA is a joke for allowing this grotesque spectacle to happen.

And for what? So a “legend” can feel more legendary. So a guy who received $90 million from Nike before he bounced a single professional dribble can extend his brand to that 0.0001% portion of the globe that doesn’t know him already. All from an athlete who has said lots of things about marketing over the years (like how he wants to be the world’s first billion dollar athlete), but precious little about winning anything.

This is the worst part of all of this: The sport’s highest-profile player has zero interest in winning anything. The whole point of sports is that everyone playing is trying their best to win. If you don’t have that, what do you have? LeBron is not a basketball player. He’s a multimedia superstar who plays basketball. He would be doing the same thing if he played baseball or lacrosse or was a professional pillow fighter. Winning doesn’t matter to him because in his universe, he has already won.

I don’t care how humble LeBron’s origins are. This is as bad as if Donald Trump bought an hour of prime time to eat diamonds (which I guess is what The Apprentice is, in a way).

THE DECISION gross and decadent and monstrous and just plain wrong. I can imagine ancient Roman gladiators deciding who they would kill in the arena with such trumped up pomp and ceremony. It makes me ashamed to be a sports fan, and a little ashamed to be an American.

This is definitely an Alien vs. Predator situation: No matter who wins, we lose.

2 thoughts on “LeBron James and the Beginning of the End”

Comments are closed.