Nike didn’t realize how prescient it was in creating the marketing slogan for LeBron James: “We Are All Witnesses.” Like it or not, the sports nation has watched a LeBron-athon for the past couple of months, culminating in Thursday’s unprecedented hour-long special on ESPN. The narration to open the show–simply titled, “The Decision”–summed it up nicely, with not as much hyperbole as it sounds like:
“With breathless anticipation, the basketball world is waiting …. The courtship of a franchise-saving superstar has come to a close …. At stake is the NBA’s balance of power …. At last, the time has arrived …. The most coveted free agent in the history of the game …. LeBron James. His decision, next.”
Some members of the media savaged James and ESPN for joining forces and drawing out what could’ve been a simple announcement. ESPN is used to being a punching bag for blurring the lines between journalism and entertainment, going back and forth between reporting and promoting. But what was the network supposed to do when James’ representatives proposed the deal? Turn it down? This was the definition of breaking news in real time; there’s never been a reality TV show with more significance on two industries (sports and broadcasting) and several cities from coast to coast.
ESPN had an excuse: the opportunity to cover the most-anticipated free-agent decision in sports history. Declining the invitation to air James’ news that he was headed to Miami would’ve been negligent behavior on the network’s part. But detractors blasted James for having the audacity to approach ESPN in the first place. How dare he ask for a one-hour special! It didn’t matter that the proceeds benefitted the Boys & Girls Club, or that the University of Phoenix made a donation to his foundation and provided five scholarships for needy kids. His ego was out of control and his hubris had run amok.
That’s not how I saw it. A self-absorbed egomaniac wouldn’t leave $30 million on the table; he’d grab every cent possible. He wouldn’t leave to play on another superstar’s team, with the likelihood of diminished stats and stature in return. And he certainly wouldn’t give up the undying love and affection of his hometown, where fans burned his jersey in the aftermath.
Critics argue that James owed it to his old team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the other suitors to let them know his decision before he announced it on the national TV. A phone call would have been nice. But sports is a business, and common courtesy is often missing when teams cut or trade players. So it’s hard to generate much sympathy when a laborer — even one making nine figures — goes strictly business on management.