07.08.10

The LeBron James Show

Has ESPN crossed a line by handing the NBA star an hour to promote himself and his new team tonight? Hardly.

Did ESPN cross a line by handing the NBA star an hour to promote himself and his new team, the Miami Heat? Hardly.

The old line about sports writing (and, by extension, sports TV) is that it amounts to free advertising. Whatever bona fide journalism is being committed is overwhelmed by breathless game coverage, action photos, and free-agent speculation that leads readers to watch more sports. That queasy notion was reinforced this week when LeBron James, the basketball player, went to ESPN, the TV network, and asked for an hour of airtime to announce his decision to play for the Miami Heat. The Decision, which aired at 9 Eastern Time, was perhaps the biggest free-advertising giveaway in the history of sports (dare we call it?) journalism.

To fully understand the weirdness of The Decision, you’ve got to understand the nature of ESPN. ESPN isn’t a pure-as-driven-snow news network the way that CNN is. ESPN pays hundreds of millions of dollars for the rights to televise sports events like Major League Baseball, NASCAR, college basketball, college football, Monday Night Football, and the NBA. (Example: ESPN recently paid a reported $500 million for the right to televise four college-football bowl games over a period of four years.) So from the jump, the network is in business with its subjects in the way CNN would never be with, say, Barack Obama.

Click Below to Watch LeBron James’ ‘Decision’

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At the same time, thanks to its swashbuckling executive editor John Walsh, a veteran of Rolling Stone and U.S. News & World Report, ESPN has a very robust, fairly old-school newsgathering operation. The network’s reporters—many of them print veterans—try to break news about athletes that athletes would rather not have broken.

Indeed, ESPN basketball aces like Chris Broussard, Chad Ford, J.A. Adande, Shelley Smith, Chris Sheridan, and Ric Bucher have been chasing the LeBron James announcement—billed as the biggest free-agent story in sports history—for weeks and months. All of them presumably wanted to be the first to tell the world where LeBron would go. Then they found out that James’ decision would be revealed by, well, them. Not revealed in a breaking-news way, but in the scripted manner of a reality-TV show. It was then up to Broussard, of ESPN The Magazine, to spit out one of the weirder scoops he has ever produced, in which Broussard said “independent sources”—meaning, not ESPN sources—had told him that ESPN would be revealing James’ decision. The network no longer seemed to be providing free advertising just for James but for itself.

Don’t blame LeBron James, who has already been demonized, for his star turn. ESPN has been televising James’ games since he was in high school; you can hardly blame him for coming back to it when he needed a time slot. “We created this monster, and he’s just playing along,” Jackie MacMullan, yet another ESPN basketball reporter, commented on ESPNews, yet another ESPN outlet, the other day. James even demanded that ESPN give him all the advertising money it gains from the hour and so he can donate it to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. If that money actually winds up in the hands of needy kids, James seems like a mensch.

So should we whack ESPN for hopping in bed with a basketball player? As Richard Sandomir wrote in The New York Times, the whole thing does make you “cringe just a little.” But it’s also true that ESPN—and NBC Sports and CBS Sports and Fox Sports and the sportscasts of local TV affiliates—makes you cringe most days of the week.

What journalistic spirit does, say, ESPN’s NFL Draft coverage contain that The Decision doesn’t? Isn’t it the same climax (“The Dallas Cowboys select…”) delivered a few hundred times over a period of days? How about the now-annual tradition by which high-school football and basketball players are invited on local TV stations (and, of course, on ESPNU) to announce where they’re going to college—that is, to make their own mini- Decisions.

To those acts of televised pseudo-journalism, I’d add… LeBron James’ basketball games. Having plunked down their millions and billions to purchase the rights, ESPN and its peers do not cover them so much as host them. There are journalistic elements to an NBA broadcast—the sideline interviews, the comments from the color man in the booth. But a televised basketball game is not journalism in any traditional sense. It is a high-dollar, mutually agreeable tango, benefitting the network and the players, just like the James special.

Which is not to say there’s no such thing as sports journalism, including on ESPN. It is to say that there is a bunch of free advertising out there that millions of us have been gobbling up for years. Tonight, no matter what LeBron James decides, it will be another game in the long season.

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. He was a columnist at Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, and has written for GQ, Outside, and New York. Write him at bryan.curtis at thedailybeast.com.