The latest deconstruction of an American sports icon took place on live television, in prime time, during a one-hour broadcast so surreal it felt as if we were watching "The Truman Show." LeBron James proved that he is a self-absorbed, egomaniacal child. Jim Gray and ESPN proved that they are shameless stooges. And we proved that we are now completely lost, wandering along without any moral compass whatsoever.
So James is going to play for the Miami Heat. Great. Good luck to him and to Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and the rest of the Heat. None of that should really bother anyone. But the manner in which James announced his decision last night brought American sports to a new low and made a complete mockery of our core beliefs, most notably the ones that declare no individual to be bigger than the team, league, or, most importantly, game.
But then, all we’ve been doing for 25 years is telling LeBron James how great he is, all while happening to omit a fairly important detail: You have to win something, LeBron. You can’t really become a megastar until you earn it at the highest levels. At this moment, the sad truth is that James is more like Freddy Adu or Michelle Wie or Anna Kournikova than he is Tiger Woods or even Alex Rodriguez, if only because the last two men actually have some titles. LeBron has none. And yet, ESPN all too willingly indulged James last night by kissing his bottom like no major media outlet ever has done before, providing him with the pedestal from which James could look down on, well, everyone.
There are lots of angles to this story, beginning with simple truth that professional sports have devolved into something quite sad. The winning just doesn’t seem to matter much anymore. ESPN, in particular, spends an inordinate amount of time celebrating people like James, Rodriguez, and Brett Favre, whose colossal insecurities have caused them far more tragic failures than true successes. And the network has done it all in the interest of ratings, destroying any remaining measure of reality from a world in which there was relatively little to begin with.
Really, were they kidding us with that garbage? Gray’s questioning of LeBron James made those Ahmad Rashad-Michael Jordan exchanges look like the Spanish Inquisition. Do you still bite your nails, LeBron? Maybe, at some point, it would have served Gray to ask James what all of us were thinking: if the team is important LeBron, then why are you here alone? Why aren’t Dwyane and Chris here with you? For that matter, why aren’t the Miami Heat, who will be paying you an extraordinary amount of money, here to share in the celebration of the self-proclaimed King?
The obvious answer: because James didn’t want them there. Because he wanted the spotlight to himself. Because he’s more important than they are and he has yet to recognize the value in being part of something bigger than you. Because he’s more interested in promoting the James brand – and, for that matter, that of ESPN – before those of Wade, Bosh, the Heat, and Pat Riley. If LeBron truly wanted to do something for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, he didn’t have to funnel them the money of advertisers and sponsors. He could have signed a blank check.
But then, in that case, he actually would have had to give something.
In the bigger picture, of course, ESPN is just the biggest and most obvious example of a media world gone awry. In the age of the internet and cable television, the proliferation of media outlets has intensified problems that admittedly were there to begin with. With competition for the scoop now being conducted on broader scales and at higher speeds than ever before, access has become the easiest route to an original story. Accordingly, reporters are sacrificing standards. We have become lackeys and mouthpieces, apologists and enablers. We tell people like LeBron how great they are, over and over again, and we withhold the truth because it might cost us a competitive advantage.
Clearly, James’ family and friends are doing the same thing. Were that untrue, somebody would have stepped up and told James how positively pathetic his performance was destined to be last night – and someone would have stopped it. Instead, presumably, James’ sycophantic team patted him on the back and told him how perfect he was – you da man, LeBron! – all while James and ESPN shamelessly promoted one another under the guise of a charitable endeavor.
Here’s another thing: these hand-picked interviews are starting to get real old, real fast. Mark McGwire had Bob Costas. Woods had Tom Rinaldi and Kelly Tilghman. Michael had Ahmad and LeBron has Gray. The obvious public relations strategy here is for the star to control the media – and not the other way around – and desperate media outlets have been all too willing to acquiesce. In the process, as a group, we have sacrificed any chance at accountability, which is what we were intended to obtain in the first place.
Now, more than ever, we truly give free press.
Shame on us.
We’re a joke.
The saddest part in all of this is that LeBron is being celebrated as some kind of enormous success in the sports world, which is laughable given his resume. He’s a great businessman, of course, but so was Brian Bosworth. When Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce came together in Boston, they did so as 30-somethings on whom reality had long since dawned. They needed each other and they were willing to do whatever necessary to make it work. The subjugation of egos was a critical development in that, something Garnett has proven time and time again by making himself part of a team rather than isolating himself from it. That is why Tom Brady, too, continues to hold weekly media sessions at his locker rather than at a podium.
Maybe that is all real, maybe it’s not. But it is symbolic if nothing else.
In the case of James, he is 25. He will turn 26 on December 30. He doesn’t know a fraction of what he thinks he does. The unification of James, Bosh, and Wade feels more like an arranged marriage than anything else, as if LeBron is using Bosh and Wade (already a title winner) to get his championship the way a mail-order bride gains citizenship. Thus far, James has not been able to win a title on his own merit, and he has heretofore blamed everyone but himself. During Cleveland’s loss to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals – the King’s last act as a Cav – James sometimes seemed to play as if he wanted to lose, as if he wanted to make a point, as if he wanted to grease the skids for his departure from Cleveland. You see? I just can’t win here. A truly great player, of course, would have hoisted the team on his back – or at least tried.
Instead, James is off to Miami, a decision he was fully entitled to make. It’s just his motivation that many of us question. Does James want a title because he thinks he deserves one? Or does he want to actually, you know, win it? His behavior suggests the former more than the latter. James seems to regard a championship as a birthright, as if it is something to be given to him rather than to be earned. And the more time that passes, the more you cannot help but wonder if James is just another damaged, spoiled, and self-absorbed brat who cannot understand the simplest rules in life.
Generally speaking, you get what you deserve. And you deserve what you go out and get.
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