Heat Wave Washes Away American Ideals: LeBron James, the Media, and the American Soul


by Walter Brasch


            Millions of Americans had pleaded with basketball superstar LeBron James to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and come to their city when he became a free agent. Bloggers, media pundits, and reporters of every kind seemed to devote much of their lives to figuring out what team James would be a part of for the 2011 season. 

            The speculation ended, Thursday, July 8, when ESPN opened a full hour of prime time for some pretend-journalism and an interview with James, who 28 minutes into the infomercial announced he was leaving Cleveland and going to the Miami Heat.  Floridians were ecstatic. With multimillionaire James joining multimillionaires Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, they were sure the Heat would once again win an NBA championship, something that had eluded James in Cleveland. The day after the ESPN show, the man known in Cleveland as "King James" held court with Wade and Bosh in Miami's American Airlines arena, surrounded by 13,000 screaming fans, all of whom watched South Beach and Miami city officials give the three superstars keys to their cities. Two days after the announcement, Miami Heat fans began buying replicas of James jerseys, with his new number, 6, stitched across the back. Most NBA jerseys sell for about $50; these were priced up to $150.

            In other basketball franchise cities, millions of fans who thought their team would have a chance to sign the man who wears a tattoo, "Chosen 1" across his back, wailed incessantly, as if their high school's Prom Queen had just rejected their mournful bid to go steady. On the day of the "decision," ABC-TV, a sister company to ESPN, devoted two segments on its nightly news to the forthcoming spectacular. The other networks settled for one segment. Following the "decision," the TV networks and local stations ran "breaking news" crawls beneath scheduled shows. The next morning, newspapers gave the announcement front page coverage, with extensive commentary inside. The New York Daily News devoted almost its entire front page to a picture of a scowling James, and the whining headline, "Hey, New York, we're the greatest city in the world, so . .  .WHO CARES!" The New York Post front page headline was a bold "LeBum."

            But, it was Cleveland where hatred unified a city of about 450,000, part of a metropolitan area of about 2.2 million. Within minutes after James announced his decision, the Cleveland fans threw his cardboard images into trash cans and burned jersey replicas, the same ones they had proudly worn for seven years. Within two days, they began tearing down a Nike-sponsored 10-story mural that featured LeBron James, his head thrown back, his oversized arms spread out, saviour-like. This city would not have any graven image of the traitor they once worshipped as a "hometown hero." Thousands even proclaimed they would boycott all companies—including Allstate, Nike, and McDonald's—that have endorsement contracts with James. Between tears and rage, Cleveland fans, aided by numerous sports commentators, claimed that the James defection would cause the city to lose at least $20 million in revenue and, for all we know, doom it to be a third world country. A bitter Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who had not received the courtesy of even a pre-announcement phone call from James, lashed out in a letter to his fans, calling the decision, a "shameful display of selfishness and betrayal," and that the hometown Cavaliers, unlike James, "have not betrayed you nor NEVER will betray you." But, Gilbert's most important statement might have been his observation of the entire process. Although Gilbert would have praised James and the TV coverage had he remained in Cleveland, the Cavaliers' owner pointed to an underlying truth. The decision, said Gilbert, "was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his 'decision' unlike anything ever 'witnessed' in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment."

            Even when the hyperbole is stripped away, a truth remains. For at least a week, it didn't seem there was any other news. But there was.

            On the day that LeBron James announced he was going to Miami, and the media and a couple of hundred million Americans sat in anticipation of the "Decision," another heat wave washed over America. In this one, three people died from the heat wave that gripped the northeast; hundreds more, mostly senior citizens and the homeless, had to be treated for heat stroke or heat exhaustion.

            On the day that LeBron James announced he was going to Miami, and the media and a couple of hundred million Americans sat in anticipation of the "Decision," about 15 million Americans were unemployed, and 46 million Americans had no health insurance.

            On the day that LeBron James announced he was going to Miami, and the media and a couple of hundred million Americans sat in anticipation of the "Decision," the BP oil spill in the Gulf was in its 79th day. On that day, 2.5 million gallons of oil polluted the Gulf. As much as 160 million gallons have now leaked into the Gulf, destroying wildlife, plants, and the livelihoods of several hundred thousands residents.

            On the day that LeBron James announced he was going to Miami, and the media and a couple of hundred million Americans sat in anticipation of the "Decision," three British and two American soldiers and two UN workers were killed. American deaths in Afghanistan since the war began now total 1,171; about 6,700 have been wounded.

            On the day that LeBron James announced he was going to Miami, and the media and a couple of hundred million Americans sat in anticipation of the "Decision," at least 60 civilians died from bombs in Iraq; about 360 were wounded. Since the beginning of the American-led invasion of Iraq, 4,412 American soldiers have died; almost 32,000 have been wounded, according to Defense Department records. Civilian casualties are estimated at 110,000, according to the Associated Press. Other reliable sources place the totals well over a half-million civilian deaths from hostile action.

            On the day of the "Decision," if you added up the yearly salaries of only the American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since the wars began, they would not equal the money that LeBron James makes in just one year. And, that, more than anything else, says a lot about America.


[Walter Brasch's latest books are the witty and probing Sex and the Single Beer Can, a look at American culture and the mass media; and Sinking the Ship of State, an overview of the Bush–Cheney presidency. Both are available at amazon.com, and other stores. You may contact Brasch at Brasch@bloomu.edu]




Athletes Behaving Badly

If you were to ask me to pick LeBron James out of a line up, I could not do it. I know who he is but to be frank I have no clue what he looks like. I suspect, however, if I were to look up the word "narcissist" in the dictionary, I might then find his picture. My knowledge of LeBron James is rather limited. I know he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, that he is considered a superstar, that he lacks a supporting cast in Cleveland and has thus failed to win an NBA championship even as his team won the most games during the 82 game NBA season. In reading today about the brou-ha-ha over his bolt to the Miami Heat, I learned that he also hails from Akron, Ohio. I'm still not even sure what position he plays. I'll take a stab and guess that given his size he is a power forward. And given occasional comments from the President, I'd say that Barack Obama is a fan and would have liked to have seen him in a Chicago Bulls uniform. I am not sure if they were in the bidding war though I understand the team I grew up rooting for the New York Knickerbockers were only because I read the New York Times daily. Other than LeBron James, I can name just two other current NBA players: Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol of the Lakers. My knowledge is that limited.

It's been a while since I stopped caring about professional athletes and their outsized egos driven by their outsized pay cheques. I have no clue what LeBron James will earn for his talents but it is a number wholly inconsistent with the best interests of society. Mind you, many owners of sport teams hardly paragons of civic virtue. Caught between these forces, I have largely given up watching sports. It's become all about the money and that's not something I am interested in.

When I lived in New York, I became a die hard Mets fan. I can remember going to Shea and have the whole experience not cost more than $5.00 for a subway ride, an upper deck seat, hot dog and soda. The last time I went to a baseball game here in San Francisco was in 2005 and that experience cost me $90.00 to take three friends to the game. The tickets were free, a perk from working at Goldman Sachs (the firm bought season tickets mainly to entertain clients but unused tickets were made available to employees). The money spent was solely for a programme, food and a beer apiece. Had I had to pay for the tickets, the outing would have run into the hundreds of dollars. Not something I am interested in doing nor something I think many American families are capable of doing anymore. I suspect that for most Americans, sports is another thing they now do from the sidelines of a bar or their home watching the event on television.

I personally find it shameful the way LeBron James decided to so publicly humiliate his entire fan base in the Greater Cleveland area toying with their emotions and hosting an hour long "it's all about me" show on ESPN to announce his decision. It was as if their investment, their undying loyalty did not matter.

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