For one week in July, NBA star LeBron James’s free agency dominated the airwaves, hijacking attention away from the World Cup, the world’s biggest international sporting event. In the weeks before the self-aggrandizing, hour-long selection show to pick a new team broadcast across North America to announce James’s decision, I was already sick of hearing about it. I even rooted for James’s Cleveland Cavaliers over my hometown Boston Celtics in the playoffs just from a desire to put an end to the endless discussion about his pursuit of an NBA title and ensuing free agency. And yet when the announcement came, I was engrossed. I actually booed my television when he said he was “taking [his] talents down to South Beach.” From flippant and dismissive, I was suddenly acting as if deeply invested in what happened; it just goes to show the power of sports media. Suddenly, James’s decision was important and a big deal just because ESPN made it important and a big deal.
The sports media have the power to instantly change the public’s perception of professional sports. LeBron James and NFL player Brett Favre, not so long ago, were the darlings of their respective leagues until recently. Now they are targets of scorn for fans and the media. If not for the intrusive coverage of professional athletes’ personal lives, Tiger Woods would still be known as the world’s most famous golfer who happened to get in a car accident last November, rather than the world’s most infamous philanderer. ESPN created the buzz necessary to get people to tune into The Decision, James’s hour-long team selection show, by spending the days before with non-stop coverage and even a page on their website called “LeBron Tracker.” The event attracted more viewers than this year’s Stanley Cup finals. James is now a villain amongst NBA fans because the network he sold the one-hour special to would later demonize him for having the show.
In the aftermath of the LeBron Decision, the same opinion was repeated across all sports news outlets: “Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird never would have done that.” I then found myself criticizing him not only for being egotistic enough to announce his free agency decision the way he did, but also because he chose to join the best players in the league rather than try to beat the best players in the league. It was like ESPN had performed Inception on my brain. Ultimately, the situation boiled down to a star athlete who was unsatisfied with his current team and had the ability to pick any team he wanted, and chose to play with good teammates that would help him win a championship (in Miami instead of Cleveland, no less). On his blog, comedian Michael Showalter satirically commented about the outrage over James: “If given the choice between working with the best people or mediocre people I will always choose to work with mediocre people because then I will be way less successful at doing the thing I love the most and have worked my whole life to succeed at! It’s such a no-brainer!”
There’s no rule book for professional athletes that says you have to win on your own. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird all had Hall of Famer teammates on their side. The outrage over James’s supposed lack of competitiveness is an artificial belief that became popular opinion partly because of the talking heads that said so.
As local newspapers and their sports sections go under, the major sports media networks have more hegemonic power over the public opinion of sports fans than ever before. Do people really care if Brett Favre reports to training camp, or if LeBron James switches teams?
ESPN can turn a relatively insignificant story into one that gets covered like the BP oil spill by choosing to make it important. With a society of voracious sports consumers and such globally recognized and prominent media outlets, 24-hour sports media are creating the narratives for their networks and the sports world.