|The Demonization of LeBron James|
|Written by Roger M. Groves|
“If LeBron were an IPO, I’d buy it … At 21, I wasn’t remotely as mature as LeBron.” — Warren Buffett
Now that the NBA season is over, I have taken a moment to reflect. The lasting memory is not of the glorious success of the Mavs. It is of LeBron James and the season-long media/fan obsession with seeing him and the Heat fail. As one weary sportscaster put it, “We discuss LeBron as if he was our media Facebook status.”
It occurred to me that if all I knew about someone is that he announced a job move and staged it so that $2 million in cash would be donated to the Boys and Girls Club of America, my first reaction would probably be, “Now there’s a person with media savvy who is also a good person at heart.” Add the fact that the donated cash was virtually all the advertising revenue from that single event and I would feel reassured it was not just a ploy for disguised greed. If I further discovered that another $1 million in computers and Nike equipment was spread among eight Boys and Girls clubs – most notably Akron, and Cleveland, I would feel even better about the donor who gave back something significant – not just empty words and a wave – to the cities he was raised and was employed.
But if I knew nothing more, I would probably scratch my head about why the network that aired the announcement only made a minor footnote of the $3 million chartable aspect of the event. And I would scratch my head again if the donor is primarily blamed for the event, when the worst part about it was the publicity, controlled by the network. If I took a moment to reflect, I would say, “Wait a minute. ESPN controlled the sickening number of promotional ploys leading up to the decision. Only ESPN could create the hype because only ESPN controls the airspace.” Then I would say, “For all I know ‘The Decision’ was ESPN’s title.” Clearly, ESPN made the decision to announce the upcoming decision over and over again, day and night as if it was the second coming of Jesus Christ, instead of the second team for King James. Yet, the demon as crowned by the media was James, not the media itself. This was the beginning of the demonization of LeBron James.
So let’s add a few other facts. The City of Cleveland and the donor’s prior employer had the benefit of his services for seven years. During that time the employer’s product (a team) went from mediocre-at-best with a half empty arena to a team on the verge of being the best in the world with a frenzied sold-out arena. The owner made millions. The local economy grew by millions per year. Yet the employee who is leaving didn’t say anything bad about the City before he left. In fact, he said he loved them and he understood their frustration. His kind words came despite knowing they were burning his uniform in effigy and creating as much venom as their imagination could muster.
In response to the employee’s resignation, the employer’s principal owner called him a “coward”, who was “selfish” and one who committed an act of “betrayal” for exercising his lawful right to pick a new employer. Objectively, on those facts, I hope we would all conclude that if the employee gave up millions of dollars in pursuit of a championship, that kind of selfishness is not so bad. The reprehensible selfishness would have been demanding all the money he could get even if it hurt the teams salary cap – financial stability.
Perhaps, as many in the media suggested, what really pushed him over the edge was the failure of LeBron to tell him in advance of his decision. Would that really have made everything alright? Now I ask you, “Would you have told your former employer exactly what you were going to do if you suspected he would lambaste you for your decision. I suspect LeBron already scooped Gilbert’s lack of goodwill and apparently James was right. Gilbert’s comments were a display of immaturity, spoiled brutishness and brat-ish-ness. It is not a crime for the employee to keep a decision to himself prior to the announcement but Gilbert treated it as one. It was LeBron’s announcement to make, his playing future, his right within the rules of the industry within which he worked. The owner should have been more Cavalier but instead he fueled the hate-speak, and the demonization was on.
So what was the real sin that takes the same facts to such a high level of scrutiny? The media says it was the arrogance to stage the decision, instead of just making the decision. ESPN is one of their own so they selectively skewed the emphasis that screwed LeBron. This is the same media that chose to keep reporting about that upcoming decision. If they were so incensed they could have reported it once. But the controversy is what sells, and pays their salaries. If their salaries come at James’ expense so be it. I would have hoped most of us would have seen through their ploy for profitability at the donor’s expense. But we bought it, hook, line, and sink-him.
Before “The Decision” LeBron was various things positive. Add them up and the term “role model” is more appropriate than arrogant. I asked myself if I would want my son to have no financial worries for himself and his family, and still have the mind to give back to children, and be extremely profitable off the court without as much as a suspended license or internet wiener pic. I would not only love it, but take partial credit. I might say his upbringing is what kept him from being like others in the neighborhood that didn’t finish high school, and lacking gainful employment legally, gained by taking advantage of others illegally. Except in reality James didn’t have the strong father figure and family structure many of his haters enjoy. Instead of his demonization, the lead story should be about how James rose above his circumstances to have more success on and off the court in his first 28 years of life than anyone of similar circumstances in the history of the sport – including the revered Michael Jordan (who was less profitable and did not receive his first Championship ring until he was months older than LeBron is now). That sounds more like a real role model to others from under-resourced communities. Yet there is a media fascination with the single so-called error of public relations – not substance. And the errors were in June, 2010. Yet he was not forgiven for his extra exuberance in trying to win a championship.
As with every story, the media had a choice. They could elect the character assassination or accentuate the far-more prevalent positives. An example of the character assassinations is the technique of adding words LeBron did not say to reach a conclusion of what they want to be his words, attempts to show an intent he did not express. Repeated false attributions are a disgrace to the profession of journalism. When James said, “For those who want me to fail, they will have to go back to their lives with the same problems they had” is to say nothing more than what he said. Not that he was claiming himself superior. If anything is to be gleaned from that statement it is that no matter how they feel about me, they have to go back to real day to day living. He didn’t say “Get a life”. It was more like, “you already have a life, and hating me doesn’t help.” The haters still have to get up and go to work, and LeBron has nothing to do with it.
LeBron then said he will go back to his family. I think that is a laudable and mature thing to do. And he said this in a matter-of fact professional tone, without a hint of verbal or body-language brashness. There should be no LeBron-bashing about saying and doing just that. Instead, I heard a sports announcer on a Portland Oregon TV station interpret that same quote to mean LeBron is pitting himself as a rich guy against the little guys who pay for his lifestyle. News Flash: The haters aren’t paying his salary. The team that hired him and the fans that want to see him win pay his salary. LeBron, by the way, has 2 million Twitter followers and the highest selling jersey this season. But that kind of hate-speak from so-called journalists operating under the guise of objectivity is more disappointing to me than LeBron’s final three games of the season.
So this reflection leaves me a bit confused. During my decades of following sports, I usually hear the media extol of the virtues of hard work, unselfishness, sacrificing his game for the benefit of the team, being a good all-around player (defense, assists, rebounds), not just being an offensive machine. I usually hear compassion even when the player does not quite reach the goal. Here we have a consummate team player who rather than just score a lot of points, does everything he can to try to win a championship. He has been a tireless worker during the season, and improves his game from working hard off season. I am confused because the most glory has gone to someone who is known only for scoring. LeBron tried to get teammates more involved – a selfless act. Yet he takes a hit for not being more selfish and shooting more. After game 5 he admitted he had to be more aggressive offensively. In Game 6 he did what he said he would do, and produced. He was his team’s leading scorer. But because that was not enough to win, the vast majority of comments were that it was still his fault. Only a few observed as an afterthought that Miami’s coach was outcoached, and that D. Wade had a worse overall performance than James.
Yes, we can say James brought the criticism on himself for making such bold predictions. After the last game, LeBron was contrite and admitted that not winning the championship was a personal failure. At 27 years old he got too giddy. Expecting too much too soon is a malady shared by many youth. But they should not be vilified for it even if they are among the best in the world at their craft. Yet throughout all of the negatively during press conferences, I found LeBron’s comments articulate, honest, humble, insightful, and without the profane outbursts that coaches twice his age have succumbed to committing and who received far less vilification. LeBron is more worthy of respect for answering questions head on than politicians who have made a play book and culture of ducking hard questions.
The haters and nay-saying ESPN commentators do not have youth as an excuse. LeBron’s mistakes were intentionally blown out of proportion. Others have guaranteed wins and championships – just without the ESPN hype. Mav players Jason Terry and DeShawn Stevenson displayed far more showboating, trash talking, strutting, braggadocio and arrogance on and off the court than James and Wade combined, but the media saw it and ignored it without chastisement. It was not enough for James to say, “I apologize for the way [The Decision] happened.” It was not enough for him to say the team’s failure to win a championship is “motivation to help myself become a better player next year.” What more should we expect prior to forgiveness or at least compassion?
And I wonder whether there is another dynamic from this demonization that is taboo to discuss in mainstream America. I suspect there are some hate-speakers with social baggage. There is overwhelming support for LeBron from African Americans not living in Miami from my unscientific polling. They expressed a cultural compassion not shared by the national media. That media of reporters and sportscasters is over 97% white as are the majority of fans in America. They apparently see the same events quite differently in emphasis and expectation.
It bears repeating that the media has a choice as to what to emphasize. In this instance, they chose poorly. They appealed to the worst among us, undeserved cheap shots that are myopic in scope. The best in us is the part that says, “Let’s reflect prior to demonization. Let me look at the body of work before I impugn his intent, his character.” We, as fans, would want the court of public opinion to do the same for us. To do otherwise, we would loudly cry, is a flagrant foul.
As I view the 2010-2011 NBA season the biggest foul created was not on the court. And it was not committed by players. It was committed by haters and media moguls of controversy against LeBron James.