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The LeBron James Frenzy Showcases the Worst of Sports
NBA free agency has been in swing for a few weeks now, and the biggest story has undoubtedly been where LeBron James is going to sign, whether he'd stay with Miami, go back to Cleveland or head elsewhere. Well, James just made his decision: to go back to Cleveland in an article he "wrote" to si.com on July 11th.
With that, its time to reflect on this NBA offseason so far, comparing it to the one from 2010 when LeBron James was last a free agent. Comparing the two, I find that the sports media landscape is still as awful as always.
Looking Back at "The Decision"
Four years ago, LeBron James had finished what was at the time his final season as a Cleveland Cavalier, a season which saw yet another playoff disappointment, to say the least. At the time, James had only been to the Finals once, getting swept by San Antonio in 2007. Probably aware that Cleveland's roster will never be good enough to help him reach the top, James decided to join a team that featured other top-notch star players in hopes that this newly formed super team could get him the championships he so desired.
He found such a team, in the Miami Heat, who already featured the accomplished Dwayne Wade and would be adding Toronto's Chris Bosh that same offseason.
This, by itself, isn't offensive or in poor taste or anything like that. Nothing wrong with any of James' actions if that was all there was to it. Of course, it wasn't. James decided to publicly announce his decision to sign with Miami via a TV special hosted by ESPN where he basically had complete creative control of the program, including which person would "interview" him to determine where he was going.
I didn't watch it at the time - I found it more worth my time as a sports fan to watch a Lacrosse All-Star game on ESPN2 - but LeBron's ever-infamous words on that stage in that special remain as forced and awkward as ever.
"I'm taking my talents to South Beach."
No passion, no confidence behind those words. Its as though someone on his personal "team" wrote it up on a script and he just recalled them verbatim to make his hamfisted declaration.
Of course, as stupid as the whole gala was, it was still watched by way more people than it deserved. I don't want to say the ratings justified the program, because nothing ever will, but it certainly made ESPN's brass more comfortable basically throwing away their integrity to bow at will to a single athlete.
Did you like ESPN's level of LeBron James coverage?
I want to get into ESPN specifically. The problem persists across sports media as a whole, but without question ESPN is both the top dog in sports media, and also the leader in it, in that whatever they do or follow others will copy and imitate themselves in hopes of drawing in some of ESPN's massive audience. So, lets ignore the sports media sheep for a moment and focus on ESPN.
Four years ago, ESPN made a mockery of itself and the concept of sports by allowing "The Decision" to happen on its airwaves. Of course, that didn't just happen on its own; ESPN spent several weeks up to that point obsessing over NBA free agency, including where LeBron James would be heading. Keep in mind, this was all during the 2010 FIFA World Cup as well as your standard late-June MLB action. ESPN opted to ignore these actual competitions as they continued to fawn and obsess over their self-made sports "celebrities" and the supposed "narratives" that feature them.
Don't get me wrong, though, it is interesting to see where one of the best players in basketball would be playing in years to come, but its not that interesting. Not interesting enough to completely shelved actively competing sports to follow it. Not interesting enough to lay down and give that player one hour on its airwaves to mutter an awkward declaration in front of nearly ten million viewers.
ESPN did indeed get a lot of criticism for airing the program, with some directed towards ESPN's lost journalistic integrity, but the network defended it by separating its journalistic and entertainment sectors, the latter of which was responsible for the program.
ESPN's devolution the past decade or so has been shocking and disappointing all at once. What was once a premier network for sports highlights and coverage now spends most of its days across multiple networks either fawning over athletes and narratives, or debating over those same athletes and narratives. Highlights and sports coverage are thrown to the backburner to serve as a reminder that, yeah, ESPN does that too sometimes, but neither of those are ESPN's focus, and neither have been for quite some time.
So then, it becomes obvious that ESPN wouldn't learn any lessons from 2010 and go into 2014, an NBA offseason to once again feature free agent LeBron James, with the same kind of reckless abandon they showcased four years ago. Sure enough, the last two or three weeks has been nothing but NBA free agency coverage. Not much on the World Cup, especially after the US team's elimination. Not much on baseball, obviously. Did the NHL have its free agency yet? You'd never know if you only watched ESPN.
The network's coverage has only gotten worse in recent days as rumors started to fly that LeBron James would go back to Cleveland. That, among other things, caused ESPN to go into coverage overdrive, trying to become the first place to scoop where all these free agents are going, damn the sources. Every little thing about this eventually-true return was covered, from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's angry letter from 2010 finally being removed from the team's website to several locales in Cleveland getting ready for his return, to LeBron's current whereabouts - did you know he was in Las Vegas for awhile? ESPN made damn sure you knew!
I repeat, of course, that this is the kind of slop coverage that multiple networks and multiple media sources do. Multiple places whose jobs is to point out this over-saturation have over-saturated themselves with this coverage. Even so, ESPN remains the top dog in sports media. Whatever they do, others will follow. They embarrass themselves with way over the top LeBron James coverage, others will too.
The Role of Sports Fandom
Unfortunately, ESPN is not this supposed leader. They, too, are merely followers, though they do not follow any other sports media network or website. They, instead, follow the national conversation. They talk non-stop about LeBron James because most sports fans talk only about LeBron James. More people in the United States are talking about James then they are about the World Cup, about baseball, about any other sport at the moment. This is why 2010's "The Decision" had nearly 10 million viewers. This is why Sports Illustarted's "I'm Coming Home" will be the most read article, perhaps in this entire year. Sports fans want to know everything about James and they do, in fact, want moment-by-moment updates on where he is in hopes he'd make a decision sooner than later. This is why awful debate shows like First Take can argue forever about LeBron James and other top "celebrity"-level athletes. All these awful things that now make up the sports media landscape are there because the sports public as a whole demands them. They want non-stop coverage of their favorite athletes and the narratives they feature. They don't care about highlights, especially when they can just get them on their phones now. They still want to hear debates on whether LeBron James is doing the right thing or not. ESPN and other networks will continue to deliver this to the public non-stop as a result because that's what earn them their ratings, clicks, and money.
Truly, this obsession with celebrity and narrative has corrupted not just sports media, but sports fandom as well. It's a vicious cycle: if the fandom demands it, the media provides it, but as long as the media provides it, the fandom will demand more of it. One of these two things are going to have to say enough is enough. As long as neither does, though, we'll continue to see the worst of sports every time a big name athlete does something notable.