Thursday, July 8, 2010

Lebron is no Curt Flood

I think Lebron has really misjudged the sports landscape. This whole thing, start-to-finish, was more than a ploy to garner attention, to “build his brand,” to do what’s best for him and his family; no, this is too much, this is too heady, even for the most doted-over superstar of the times to think is ok to do. I don’t think that even he thinks that hijacking the sports media and his home city for the sake of his “brand” is morally comprehensible. Nor do I think that Lebron is a selfish maniac who doesn’t understand the havoc he has created. On the contrary, I think he is one of the most self-aware athletes of the time, a child of the post-Jordan, post-ESPN News, post-internet sports landscape. I think what Lebron is trying to do here, is to change the power structure within the world of sports. I also don’t think that this is necessarily a nefarious motive. Not only that, but I also don’t think this is the alpha moment of this plan, but actually the culmination of what he thinks he started several years ago by jettisoning his management team to make way for his own creation.

Several years ago, Lebron came into a power structure that was, let’s face it, somewhat outdated. In the mid-1980s, David Stern, Michael Jordan, David Falk, and Sonny Vaccaro literally changed the way that we view individual athletes. Furthermore, they augmented the limits to what the individual athlete can accomplish. Jordan actually absorbed more of a “bigger-than-the-team” backlash than we would care to remember. Jordan was often criticized for being selfish and losing sight of the concept of “team.” Six rings later, everyone seemed to forget how selfish this immature ball hog was. But what Jordan and Falk couldn’t accomplish in one generation was the structure of how the money and power was distributed. Jordan still answered to Nike, still was somewhat of a politician, unable to fully capitalize on his own brand without the support of the league or Nike. Jordan’s recent purchase of the Charlotte Bobcats speaks to this: he wanted to be the one that not only scored the touchdowns, but also the guy that called the plays.

Enter Lebron. Lebron is not merely a product of the Jordan era, but an honor student. He has studied and remapped everything about the Jordan era to fit this new post-Jordan landscape, and he has, from day 1, been interested in building on Jordan’s legacy. He is the Plato to Jordan’s Socrates, or the Lennon to Jordan’s Elvis. Lebron wants not only to be the guy that shows up on the Wheaties box, not only the iconic silhouette (whether he is flying through the air or throwing up chalk), but he wants to be the guy who makes the cereal, names the shoe, and calls all the shots. Why should he merely be an admittedly extremely-well-paid tool to make other people money, when he can do it himself? I really think this is, and has been, Lebron’s thought process during this whole thing.

Not only that, but he has anticipated this backlash. He thinks of himself as a modern-day Curt Flood, absorbing the brunt of the force so that those who come after him will not have to. Existentially, there is something radically unselfish about those motives. However, paradoxically, his motives are to create a world where selfishness is more acceptable. It’s weird that many in the media, and millions of bloggers and commentators have called him selfish and a glory-hog because they think he is merely doing this for attention. That he is losing sight of his own mortality and trying to become some sort of post-modern media demi-god. I’m sorry, but after watching him for the last ten years, and observing him as one the most self-aware, cold-blooded characters to come to the stage in this media era, I find it hard to believe that he, only now, needs to create some sort of stratospheric “buzz” around his brand. He knows what he’s doing, he’s just wrong.

You see, the landscape that he has perceived as in need of fixing is not broken. I will agree that it is not entirely fair. We still live in a world where NFL Owners make gross profits by limiting guaranteed contracts to the players and exploiting the fans. We still live in a world where baseball players have it in their best interest (often their only interest) to abandon loyalty to teams and cities that reared them for greener pastures elsewhere. And we still live in a world where even the most successful athletes owe answers and money to agencies, management teams, ownership, and sponsors. But Lebron trying to knock down these barriers with one fell swoop, in an attempt to remodernize the power structure of athletics by hijacking the media and the hearts of the millions of northeast Ohioans who have adored him for the better part of the past decade is not only disingenuous, but it is downright mean.

Tonight, when Lebron announces on national television that he is leaving for Miami, he truly believes he is changing the way athletes are seen. He is thinking, why should ESPN, the news-media conglomerates, and a league made up of Donald Sterlings and Clay Bennets get to break this story, sell ad time, and put up the marquee for the biggest news of the summer. Why can’t he? And to some extent, he’s not wrong. But, unfortunately, he has left many Ohioans, most notably myself, sleepless over three days. He has created far more of a shitstorm than he ever could have anticipated in the national media, and he has altogether destroyed his precious “brand.” He set out on a mission to change the sports landscape, and for all intents and purposes he actually may have succeeded. Unfortunately it was at the cost of millions of fans, and years of dedication and admiration. I will now go put the finishing touches on my rooftop launching pad.

1 comment:

David Price said...

Matthew, you are a gentleman and a scholar. I think you are correct on so many levels in this piece and you put it so eloquently. Thank you for your continued coverage and let's hope you are wrong.